Pterodactyl Hunts, Liquid Latex Dances, and Burning Dragons: 12 Most Unique College Traditions by School

Most of the time, colleges are remembered and celebrated because of their academics. Education rankings and specific programs are definitely way up there in a school’s most valued characteristics, especially when you’re eighteen years old and choosing where you want to apply. After all, people are there to learn, and a prestigious name on your resume is probably worth the tireless studying and years of loans. In the long run, anyway.

That being said, students are also there to be part of a community – to experience college life alongside their peers – and while most schools create this sense of community through sports teams and clubs, a select few colleges and universities have taken comradery to the next level. The most bizarre traditions can be found on specific campuses all over the country, and every year, despite how strange they are, people continue to partake.

While they might not necessarily be dean- or parent-approved, the student body is more than happy to carry on these weird practices, and because of that, some of these college customs have lived on for decades at a time. If you’re currently searching for a school that’s undeniably original, or if you’re just a little bit curious about the bizarre inner-workings of some campuses, check out these top 12 most unique college traditions.

Cornell University’s Dragon Day

Every year, Cornell’s first year architecture students ban together to build a giant dragon that they parade through campus on a day in mid-March. AAP students follow in ridiculous costumes, and when the whole group reaches the Arts Quad, the dragon battles the phoenix that was built by Cornell’s rivaling engineering students.

The tradition is credited to Cornellian Willard Dickerman Straight, who believed that there should be a separate school for architecture students. It was originally celebrated on Saint Patrick’s Day, when he decorated Lincoln Hall with various banners. Over the next 100 years, the tradition evolved to include all of its current-day characteristics. At one point in time, students even set the dragon on fire at the end, but this step has since been abandoned.

The Reed College Celebration of Nitrogen Day

At Reed College in Portland, Oregon, there’s a yearly celebration in honor of Nitrogen. Yes, the element.

The tradition apparently began in 1992 when a group of students decided to commemorate the underrated element. There was a ceremony entitled, “In Nitrogen We Trust,” and a brass band played a song entitled “Ode to nitrogen and its triple bond.” Due to its success, the festival was repeated the next year.

Why Nitrogen? “Nitrogen’s tendency to be overshadowed by flashy elements such as oxygen also appealed to Reedies,” says Raymond Rendleman of Reed Magazine. Now, more than ten years later, it’s still an excuse for students to hang out on a porch, roast hotdogs, and pay honor to an underdog of an element.

Emory University’s Dooley

Just about every school has a mascot, but few schools have one this bizarre. James W. Dooley, who is in fact a biology lab skeleton, is said to “safeguard the official spirit of Emory.” In addition to several surprise visits throughout the year, the school also honors Dooley for a week in the spring, where the students enjoy “fun, foolishness, and rich tradition.” He’s also responsible for dismissing class so the festivities can begin.

The tradition apparently began in 1899 when he supposedly wrote letters to the school publication, The Phoenix, all the way from the science lab. Every year, an unknown student dresses up in a hat, a cape, and white gloves in order to play the part of Dooley, but the student’s identity is always a well-kept secret.

The Shoe Tree at Murray State University

Murray State University has a tree right outside their Pogue Library on campus. Pretty standard, right? Not so much. Not unlike the Love Lock Bridge in Paris, married couples who met at Murray State nail their shoes to the tree as a sign of good luck. Each partner nails one single shoe, and some even write their anniversaries on them to celebrate their love.

It’s unclear when the tradition started, but the shoe tree that stands today is actually the second one that’s been there. The first fell down when it was struck by lightning and caught fire, and the current one has minimal limbs to prevent another similar mishap.

North Carolina State University’s Krispy Kreme Challenge

While it’s technically an event for the whole city of Raleigh, this particular tradition is planned by North Carolina State and is a favorite among students. Every year, participants run two miles from the campus landmark Belltower to the Krispy Kreme store in Raleigh. They then shove a dozen donuts into their mouths and run back, all in under an hour. Most people dress up in costumes, too.

The tradition began in 2004 with only ten participates, and over a decade later, thousands of students and citizens show up for the race. The runners raise money and all proceeds are donated to the North Carolina Children’s Hospital, and it’s so successful, organizers are worried about hitting a physical space barrier.

Orgo Night At Columbia University

At Columbia University, the Organic Chemistry (or “Orgo”) exam is always held on the first day of finals. The night before at midnight, while students are cramming those last few facts into their brains, the school’s marching band heads into the library and starts playing. The objective is to both distract students from studying and supposedly get the curve for the exam lowered.

That being said, the tradition has turned into somewhat of a party for the entire school. In addition to playing music, members of the marching band also tell jokes and then move out to the residence halls to entertain other students. While the history of this tradition isn’t known, it’s believed to have started in the ‘60s because of an impromptu prank.

The Florida State Sod Cemetery

Florida State University actually has a plot of land squared away where they bury pieces of sod and mark them with a headstone. In 1962, the Florida State Seminoles football team received a request from Dean Coyle Moore, a professor and member of the athletic board. He told them, “Bring back some sod from between the hedges at Georgia.”

After their surprising victory over the Bulldogs, the team captain did just that, and when he presented the wad of grass to Moore, it was buried on the practice field along with a commemoration monument. For over sixty years now, the Seminoles have gathered on the field before an underdog game, and they return with a hunk of sod from the opponent’s field whenever they win.

The Healy Howl at Georgetown University

In 1973, the movie The Exorcist was filmed in part on the Georgetown University campus in Washington DC. The author was also a Georgetown alumni, and as a result, the excitement surrounding the film still hasn’t really blown over for the students on this campus.  

Every Halloween, there’s a nighttime screening of the movie on campus. It’s set to end just before midnight, and when the movie is over, all the students flood outside to the campus cemetery and howl at the moon. This tradition is now called “The Healy Howl” because it takes place nearby the Healy Hall building.

The Pterodactyl Hunt of Swarthmore College

Every year, usually in early October, students of Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania put on trash bags and costumes and hit each other with foam bats. The event is organized by the Psi Phi Club, who spends several weeks preparing for the event. The backstory is to protect the student body from the “vicious pterodactyls and a slew of countless other monsters” that are released due to a temporal boundary that opens from the past.  

The event apparently started in 1982 because of a Folk Dancing Club’s poster campaign. The poster promised a midnight battle with pterodactyls, but it just turned out to be an inside joke among the dancers. Still, it captured the imagination of a few select students who worked to make the battle a reality for the next coming year, and many years to come.

Liquid Latex At Brandeis University 

Student-run shows are pretty standard on most campuses, but Brandeis University has definitely put their own spin on things. Every year, a huge percentage of the student body choreographs and participates in a dance performance, but instead of dance costumes, they wear nothing but liquid latex painted on their bodies.

The tradition began in 2000, when Alaric Toy and Sharon Gobuty created a fashion show called “Body Art Fashion Show” as a part of the Leonard Bernstein Festival of the Creative Arts. Years later, the show is so popular that applications flood in months before, and the Liquid Latex club actually has to turn away potential participants.

The Pumpkin Drop At John Muir College

John Muir College, an undergraduate school of UCSD, has a tradition in which they fling a massive pumpkin off the 11th floor of a campus building every fall. The pumpkins get increasingly bigger every few years (they’re often donated by local growers), and before the toss, they’re hollowed out and filled with candy.

Then, after the pumpkin has splattered on the concrete and the students have fished out the candy, they measure the distance of the splat. This year in 2016, the pumpkin was 600 pounds and the splat reached a distance of 106 feet away. The tradition has apparently been around for 42 years, and 2016’s pumpkin was one of the biggest ever thrown.

The Polar Bear Swim At Dartmouth

Every year, Dartmouth College in New Hampshire holds something called the Winter Carnival, which aims to celebrate the beauty of winter in the Upper Valley. One of the planned festivities is the Polar Bear Swim. Students jump into a small hole carved out in an icy pond on campus, even though the air temperature is often well below freezing. Even several professors participate, and for many students, it’s considered a bucket list-level endeavor.

The school has been holding this event now for over 20 years. Some groups raise money for specific causes, and emergency response workers and officers are always nearby to monitor the plunge.

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