The Georgetown student experience is one defined by tradition, from those with Jesuit foundations to Homecoming to sitting on John Carroll’s lap.
“I think when you first step foot on campus, you think about the 50 things you have to do, like Rangila, eat a Five Guys burger, run to the monuments, pull an all-nighter or whatever,” Blue & Gray Tour Guides President Parnia Zahedi (COL ’15) said. “I think for a medium-sized campus, it makes it smaller, and it gives it a more close-knit feel. It gives you common themes to talk about.”
But what is tradition? In common usage, tradition is implied to be rooted in history, with ancient origins in the days of ivy-clad walls. It connects generations, binding them with a common culture, common practices and common goals. Yet today, many of the traditions we seemingly take for granted as being long established are, in fact, relatively new.
Georgetown’s Jesuit tradition and strong core curriculum are two traditions with longer-established roots. Like generations of Georgetown students past, today’s students discuss their “Problem of God” or “Intro to Biblical Literature” reading and ponder how to incorporate the tenets of cura personalis and being men and women for others into their daily lives and studies.
“I have wonderful, fond memories of my undergraduate days, and I think of my fellow students, the classes and the professors I worked with. I think of the vibrant community on campus and the people I was able to spend hours with and talking at night with,” said government professor and director of the Master of Science in Foreign Service program Anthony Arend (SFS ’80). “The traditions I think of are that we all took theology and philosophy, so we could all talk about theological and philosophical issues. It created a common language that you didn’t necessarily see at other institutions.”
Outside the classroom, however, traditions tend to manifest in smaller activities. The Hoya’s bucket list, published each year in the New Student Guide, lists 25 of the activities most often cited as essential to the student experience. While some are shared with other D.C.-area schools, such as going to the White House on election night, making it to the Capitol for the Inauguration or running to the monuments, others are unique to Georgetown, like getting your head stamped at The Tombs on your 21st birthday.
On the many tours Blue & Gray leads each semester, pointing out the traditions that make up campus life form an important part of the experience tour guides try to show prospective students.
“It’s the smaller traditions that make the community,” Zahedi said. “I know for me, it was that bigger campus with that small, tight-knit feel and community.”
And many of these traditions have withstood the test of time. But many of the traditions that current students take for granted, like not stepping on the seal outside Healy Hall, at the risk of not graduating, are foreign to older alumni. Likewise, many activities that older alumni reminisce about no longer exist for today’s students.
“I wouldn’t say that there were a lot of traditions in the way we think of traditions today. If I went back to members of my class and said, ‘Describe some Georgetown traditions,’ I’m not sure if they would’ve been able to come up with any,” Arend said. “I think the Georgetown traditions, in the sense that students currently understand them, are traditions that have evolved over the past 20 years or so.”
Many older traditions grew from circumstances at the time, particularly campus renovations and construction. For example, Tim Sears (SFS ’81) spoke of sledding down the hill by the Reiss Science Center. After a snowstorm, students would take trays from the dining hall and go “traying,” but the hill disappeared when the Intercultural Center was built into it. In addition, many alumni spoke about the Healy Pub, which was located in the basement of Healy Hall, but the pub closed in 1988, and a failed attempt at a pub revival in the Leavey Center, in the space currently occupied by Bulldog Alley, closed in 1995.
“We were legally able to drink back then because the drinking age was 18 when I started. We spent a lot of time in the pub, just hanging out. To me, that was as much of a center of activity and bonding as if it were a local pub in the U.K. or something,” Kevin Meehan (COL ’84) said. “It really was an epicenter. You had Vital Vittles at the other end [of Healey], with people constantly in and out of there to get essential snack items. For me, it was Healy Basement that bound campus together.”
The Five Guys restaurant on Wisconsin Avenue used to be a French restaurant named Au Pied de Cochon, a 24-hour joint. Infamously, Russian spy Vitaly Yurchenko, who had previously defected to the United States, slipped away from his CIA handler and reneged on his defection at this restaurant.
“If you had any interest in foreign service or you were in the School of Foreign Service, you had to eat there all the time because that was where a Cold War event had happened,” Meehan said.
Meehan reminisced about the big-name concerts that highlighted the Georgetown experience in the 1970s. The concerts, which would take place in McDonough throughout the year and were organized by various student organizations, included names such as Bruce Springsteen, Bob Marley, The Who and the Talking Heads. The concerts were banned by the university following numerous illegal incidents at a Grateful Dead and Traffic concert, which was attended by 6,000 people — 2,000 more than fire regulations permitted. However, the ban was then lifted for a Beach Boys concert in November 1971.
“I actually did security for a lot of concerts. … I got to meet a lot of rock ’n’ roll people,” Meehan said. “It was great, it was very affordable and we were able to be right under the band. I think live concerts were a big thing for campus culture.”
But as larger concert venues were built in the area, such as the Capital Centre in Maryland and Verizon Center in Chinatown, D.C. concerts began to migrate away from campus into the District. In addition, Georgetown’s Student Entertainment Commission faced limited financial support from the university which limited the ability to book big-name performers. Although students currently enjoy a yearly Spring Kick-Off concert organized by the Georgetown Program Board, the scale and frequency of such live on-campus performance pales in comparison to that of the past.
For the most part, however, most of the traditions that Georgetown students hold dear today simply did not exist prior to 20 years ago. According to President of the Alumni Association George Peacock (CAS ’84), this has a lot to do with the difference in drinking age, which was raised from 18 to 21 in 1984.
“With homecoming, there were so many kegs, and in fact [they were] even on Yates football field,” Peacock said. “I sang in the Chimes, so for me, it was about standing around a keg or two and singing with alumni all weekend. It was fun. The campus would just be full of people with kegs just from Dixie Liquor. We even had a keg on ice on our dorm floor.”
Events that still exist today and are still considered traditional have also undergone some drastic changes over the decades.
“With Senior Week, it was a pub crawl and you would go to various stations and drink beer, and it ended down either in the athletic field now or maybe the Kennedy dorms,” Peacock said. “There was just a giant mud chute and people just got completely covered in mud.”
Descriptions of Chimes Night, held in The Tombs in the 80s, may also seem unfamiliar.
“McCooey [then owner of The Tombs] stopped serving during Chimes Night. It was like Cherry Tree but down in The Tombs,” Peacock said. “The bartenders even kept shushing people to make a real show environment. Chimes Night was a real event and the performance venue much like Gaston Hall. In fact, I think the 1964 and 1975 albums were recorded live at those Chimes Nights.”
What will perhaps surprise most students is that the tradition of not stepping on the seal at the top of the Healy steps at the risk of not graduating on time is a relatively new one.
“It was like not stepping on a flag,” Meehan said. “But it didn’t have that story attached to it — that you wouldn’t graduate.”
Peacock, who graduated the same year as Meehan, had also never heard of the theory during his time as an undergraduate.
“It was not something I heard about, and if it was true I probably stepped on it because I did not graduate on time,” he joked.
Other traditions, such as running through Dahlgren fountain, simply couldn’t have existed because the fountain did not exist. The constantly evolving nature of Georgetown’s campus — being so small and compact — also impacts the presence of various structure-related traditions.
“It’s such a small campus, and over 30 years, if you do any serious building, it seems like everything is different,” Meehan said.
Other more official traditions, such as Georgetown Day and the Christmas Tree lighting, were also created by the administration in recent years, primarily to promote a more residential and community-based environment.
Nevertheless, today’s Georgetown culture is significantly defined by smaller traditions such as getting a Chicken Madness from Wisey’s or lining up for a speaker at 5 a.m. To Sears, however, he said he thought that his undergraduate experience was much less concerned with such collective activities.
“We were of the age cohort that was just kind of off the anti-war activity and the civil rights activity that was big in the late ’60s. I arrived in the fall of ’77, and there was quite a shift in the way young people were thinking, between those who were eligible for the draft in Vietnam, and those who didn’t have that experience and were younger,” Sears said. “We were much less activists — not in the sense of doing what we wanted for ourselves and our careers, but in terms of the collective.”
Dorreen Metzner (SLl ‘76) praised the community spirit that students had found on campus.
“Some of the things they are doing on campus are fantastic,” Metzner said. “I wish we had that when we were here. If they had something like D.C. Reads or any of these other initiatives, I would have for sure partaken.”
At the same time, however, Metzner emphasized that the campus culture was still extremely rich.
“It didn’t matter because the community back in those days was also very strong and built on our common goals, our love of the place, the amazing experience we had there and the unique experience of being in a very multicultural environment,” Metzner said. “I can’t say that our experience was the lesser for not having such traditions or practices.”
Ultimately, although traditions exist to bind and connect communities, the creation and disappearance of various traditions throughout an institution’s history is natural, Arend said.
“Any tradition is constructed — they don’t just come out of nowhere. Someone has to say, ‘This is good, let’s keep doing this,’ and at some point, someone had to start it,” Arend said. “In the past 20 years, the Georgetown community has been constructing traditions, and that’s not a bad thing. It’s a way of affirming a sense of belonging and forming a sense of community, and that’s good.”