The term “alma mater” is used by thousands of graduates from universities worldwide to refer to the college or school they attended. Its meaning, derived from Latin, is translated as “nourishing mother.” The University of Bologna, founded over one millennium ago, had as its motto “Alma Mater Studiorum” – nourishing mother of studies. The concept is dear to many graduates from their respective colleges and at no time more decidedly than in the fall semester around homecomings.
This past week at West Texas A&M University, a multitude of homecoming events marked appreciation for WT, including many student organization activities, several alumni events, a parade, tailgating, a football game, the homecoming court and recognitions of alums from many walks of life who return to campus.
The weeklong homecoming event calendar helps to create a sense of identity and belonging. For many Americans, the four years spent at the University represents a long residence in their professional lifetime. Some studies reveal that people move about once every five years. The attachment to place at WT can help alumni feel a deep-rooted connection to their alma mater. Formative experiences, friendships and memories made during their time in college create a “community” often not equaled in any other setting.
Shared experiences give students common ground. They’ve been through the same rituals, traditions, courses and challenges, creating common memories that bond them together. From sporting events to graduation ceremonies, many institutions have long-standing traditions and rituals that create a unique identity for students and alumni. Participating in these traditions creates a feeling of being part of something larger than self. It is a fundamental aspect of human nature.
While belonging presents itself in many ways, the subgroups of university life are key in shaping an identity. Clubs, teams and organizations give students a means to associate with others who share like interests within the larger institution. Whether it’s a debate club, a sports team or a drama society, these groups create bonds of friendship where students forge deep connections.
Emblems, mascots, school colors, songs and mottos serve as powerful symbols of identity. Sporting these symbols in apparel or as bumper stickers or singing the school’s fight song can evoke a strong sense of pride and belonging. All that needs to be said is “On, On Buffaloes,” and you know what I mean. Football games at WT abound with color, cadence and symbols. Our live buffalo mascot is found at only one other institution in the United States, the University of Colorado.
WT has many mentorship programs in which senior students, professors or alumni guide newer or younger students. This not only helps in academic and career guidance but also fosters a sense of continuity and lifelong purpose. Equally important, support services such as counseling and academic advising show students the institution cares about their well-being. This not only helps in their times of need but also reinforces their connection to the institution. We see this connection in so many aspects of university life. The city of Canyon, Texas, is drawn into the power of affiliation developed during the student study experience. In essence, a good university connects and cultivates a sense of belonging by creating shared experiences, fostering a unique identity through symbols and traditions, offering support and promoting connections between students past and present.
WT has a strong history that gives identity to our place. For example, approximately three of four teachers and leaders in the public school systems of the Texas Panhandle have at least one degree or certificate from WT. Our history gives birth to a deep appreciation for a long-term commitment commemorated in innumerable ways during homecoming.
From the start, WT has been steadfast in serving the Panhandle first; our locale, the people who compose it, and the values they hold dear are all part of our University history, and together, they create a shared sense of purpose and place. As a normal school, the founders of WT elevated the importance and power of a sound educational experience. This creates a bond for all learners, past, present and future, who experience student life (and following that, alumni appreciation and support for the University). Academic events such as convocations, orientations and graduations are natural places for traditions. Certain songs, speeches or practices might become traditional parts of these ceremonies. There are a million reasons to celebrate what took place this past week, but nothing sums it up better than Assistant Professor Elizabeth Davis’ “Alma Mater,” written in 1921 and sung regularly a century later. It begins:
Over boundless reach of prairie,
Over rolling plains,
Over cliff and crag and canyon,
Alma Mater reigns!
Walter V. Wendler is President of West Texas A&M University. His weekly columns, with hyperlinks, are available at https://walterwendler.com/.