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AU and the Talk of Tradition

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Archival: Freshmen wearing beanie caps while on the quad. This used to be an old AU tradition.

Past Tense

Decades deep in the archives of AU’s student newspaper, The Eagle, a brief editorial holds a message that still rings true with today’s campus body.

It reads, “For a school that has been established as long as has The American University, we have surprisingly few traditions that are peculiar to our school. Yes,” it continues, “there are annual dances and athletic contests, but these are not quite the same as ceremonies that are remembered by alumni of most American schools.”

Tradition. It’s a hot word of sorts at AU, an institution that has roots back in the 19th century, when it was charted by the United States Congress.

University Archivist Susan McElrath knows the topic well. She discovered the 1960 Eagle piece and holds her yearly “Mining the Archives” presentation to outline the various traditions that have appeared at American.

“As long ago as fifty years, AU students were already complaining that traditions didn’t happen on this campus. So, obviously, this is not a new problem,” she explains.

Even with a storied history that features presidential visits and yearly events in Artemas Ward Week, the Freshmen Service Experience, and the Founders’ Day Ball, there is a sense that tradition doesn’t exist on AU soil.

Many point to an absent football team or a student body focused on internships off campus, but the culprit could be as simple as a lasting notion, an idea shared through generations.

Present Voice

Kyle Contrata, a senior in the School of International Service, echoes The Eagle’s “peculiar” words in today’s language.

“In terms of the lifespan of AU,” he says, “it’s kind of strange that we haven’t gotten any traditions yet.”

He agrees with the current campus consensus on the matter but sees a university united in its efforts to change.

“We haven’t quite found a niche for these kinds of things,” he says, “but I think the campus and the administration in the last few years have really been working to raise this kind of school spirit and spirit of tradition.”

Contrata is right to notice the attempts both by students and administrators. Student Government has dedicated its efforts this year to highlighting history and tradition by revamping Artie Ward Week and Founders’ Week with concerts, programs, and major speakers.

The Office of Campus Life is set to debut a new web communications strategy meant to emphasize AU history and its connection to the present. “This Moment in Campus Life History” articles will appear online each month.

Even McElrath, in her “Mining the Archives” presentation, makes the case for real AU traditions, whether they have continued or not. She outlines the seasonal crowning of spring and winter queens that died out in decades past along with the heavy hazing of freshmen, in which first-years were required to wear beanies, signs displaying their personal information, and pants rolled up six inches from the ground.

“As generations move on, new generations come in,” she says, “and they’re not interested in things their parents and grandparents were interested in. That makes some traditions kind of quaint but not something people would really want to do. It makes having traditions kind of hard.”

Shared Experience

While Student Government and the university administration do their best to build AU tradition and spirit through events like Artie Ward Week, Founders’ Week, and an online presence, senior Kyle Contrata doesn’t feel he’s missed out on anything in his three years at American. He may believe tradition is scarce, but he doesn’t seem to mind.

“I don’t think it’s affected my student experience in the least,” he explains. “I’ve had a fantastic time here at American. In terms of truly getting what I wanted out of university life, I think I have everything – good experiences and good relationships. I think AU can offer the really important things that people need.”

It’s hard to ignore that AU has traditions, from its 21 years of the Freshmen Service Experience to the Founders’ Day Ball, which was established in 1931. In the end, though, the perceived lack of tradition may be itself a tradition peculiar to AU. It’s one that brings students and administration together to look for an answer, and in looking, they find a common experience with the past.


If you’re interested in reading the original 1960 clipping from The Eagle, click here.

Follow the Office of Campus Life and receive its news and history stories: @aucampuslife.