Tra­di­tions, Prin­ci­ples Will Help Tech Re­gain Its Foot­ing in a Dif­fer­ent World

The Washington Post Sunday - - Shooting Rampage At Virginia Tech -

T o un­der­stand how ma­roon and orange can be a beau­ti­ful com­bi­na­tion, you have to be a Hokie. That’s what Vir­ginia Tech alumni say, and then they might boast about how their mas­cot is one tough turkey, or launch into a cheer writ­ten in the 1890s: “Hoki, Hoki, Hoki, Hy!”

Last week, we out­siders watched with ad­mi­ra­tion but also some­times a bit of dis­com­fort as a somber me­mo­rial on cam­pus broke into a ro­bust chant of “Let’s Go, Hok­ies!” fol­lowed by the sort of rhyth­mic clap­ping you hear at col­lege bas­ket­ball games. Fri­day’s mo­ment of si­lence across Vir­ginia was ac­com­pa­nied by the wear­ing of ma­roon and orange in sol­i­dar­ity with the vic­tims and their fam­i­lies.

Again and again, Vir­ginia Tech stu­dents have re­flected grate­fully on the strength and com­fort they found in their iden­tity as Hok­ies, a la­bel that con­nects them with alumni through­out the coun­try. But while some peo­ple catch the col­lege spirit bug and re­main de­voted to the idea of the in­sti­tu­tion for­ever, oth­ers find that deep, emo­tional at­tach­ment alien­at­ing.

Some Amer­i­cans have al­ways had trou­ble with or­ga­nized, mass ex­pres­sions of spirit. Ev­ery cam­pus has its share of stu­dents, and es­pe­cially pro­fes­sors, who find the rah-rah col­lege cul­ture con­tra­dic­tory to the pur­pose of higher ed­u­ca­tion.

But with­out ques­tion, Vir­ginia Tech’s col­ors and tra­di­tions have eased the pain on cam­pus. And pro­fes­sors who or­di­nar­ily rebel against an em­pha­sis on ath­let­ics and par­ties, ar­gu­ing that they steal too much at­ten­tion from stud­ies, found them­selves em­brac­ing the school’s tra­di­tions as never be­fore.

“When Nikki Gio­vanni got up and kept say­ing, ‘We are Vir­ginia Tech, we are Vir­ginia Tech,’ that made peo­ple feel more joined,” says Clara Cox, a univer­sity alumna and em­ployee who wrote a book­let trac­ing the school’s most cher­ished tra­di­tions. “You re­al­ized you’re part of some­thing big and strong, and that makes you feel bet­ter.”

Cox grew up 30 miles from Blacks­burg, got her mas­ter’s de­gree there, and mar­ried a man who has three Vir­ginia Tech de­grees and teaches there. Their daugh­ter and son-in-law both have VT de­grees. “Our blood runs orange,” Cox says, and she has in her wardrobe the ma­roon pants and shirt and orange jacket to com­plete the ensem­ble. She would never dream of par­tak­ing in such frip­pery on be­half of her un­der­grad­u­ate col­lege.

But when Vir­ginia Tech last year asked stu­dents to read one book and en­gage in a cam­puswide dis­cus­sion of it, the se­lected vol­ume, “Branded: The Buy­ing and Sell­ing of Teenagers,” by Alissa Quart, pro­voked lots of ques­tions about how Vir­ginia Tech stu­dents come to wrap them­selves in ma­roon and orange.

“At Vir­ginia Tech, the world ap­pears in only hues of ma­roon and orange,” wrote stu­dent Erin O’Keefe in the cam­pus mag­a­zine, Com­mons. “The brand of Hokie is one that per­mits for very lit­tle flex­i­bil­ity of style, di­ver­sity and depth.” She de­scribed the school’s fresh­men ori­en­ta­tion pro­gram as “an in­tim­i­dat­ing ver­sion of sum­mer camp” in which col­lege T-shirts read­ing “What is a Hokie? I am” were tossed into the ea­ger crowd and tra­di­tional Hokie chants were taught.

Tra­di­tions that seem in­no­cent and wel­com­ing to many can seem like a sand­ing down of in­di­vid­ual char­ac­ter to oth­ers, es­pe­cially on a cam­pus full of young peo­ple just form­ing their own ap­proaches to life.

Vir­ginia Tech’s brand of be­long­ing is par­tic­u­larly pow­er­ful in part be­cause it grew out of the school’s tra­di­tion and his­tory as a mil­i­tary academy that opened in 1872, Cox says. “Our tra­di­tions are based on our all-male, mil­i­tary his­tory and the Corps of Cadets,” which still ex­ists as a mil­i­tary col­lege within the univer­sity. “The ca­ma­raderie in the corps is in­cred­i­ble, and they’re in­volved in all of our cer­e­monies and tra­di­tions.”

Those mil­i­tary roots pro­vide Vir­ginia Tech with tra­di­tions that served it well last week. In times of trou­ble and pain, rit­u­als heal and con­nect. In the months ahead, the school will need to turn to an­other side, us­ing the academy’s tra­di­tion of rig­or­ous ques­tion­ing to in­ves­ti­gate what went wrong and what should be changed. In try­ing to find the right blend of Hokie spirit and in­tel­lec­tual rigor, Vir­ginia Tech will show its true col­ors.

E-mail: mar­c­fisher@wash­post.com

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