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