I Went to Susquehanna and All I Got Was This Identity Crisis

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Well, not only that, but read on… 

July 9, 1999 was the first time I ever saw Susquehanna University. I was 16 years old and had just recently finished my sophomore year of high school. During a career counseling session, I mentioned that I loved to write. The guidance counselor got into a folder, pulled out a piece of paper, and asked me if I’d ever heard of Susquehanna University. Nope. Prior to that, the only college on my Central Pennsylvanian radar was Penn State, where my entire family had gone to school (except for one cousin to whom I acknowledge no relation) and where I had always just assumed that I would go.

Mrs. B. handed me the paper and informed me that they did a writing camp for high school kids in the summer, and that it would be a really great experience for me. It sounded fantastic, but there were two problems:

  1. It was $500 for the weeklong workshop
  2. I had never been away from home before without my family and I was nervous

I told my parents I wasn’t going to do it, but my Gram insisted that she would help pay. So I applied and was accepted. In the process of applying, I learned that my English teacher was a Susquehanna graduate and she knew the professor, Gary, who was running the workshop, and loved him.

I can remember the butterflies in my stomach as our mini-van rolled down 18th St. As we passed Pine Meadows, I won’t lie: it was clearly a low-income housing development and it made me, 16 and sheltered, a little bit nervous. That lasted only a minute, because in the next second, we were turning left onto University Avenue and I was taking in the campus for the first time: the steeple on Weber Chapel, Seibert Hall, all of the lush green trees outside of Selinsgrove Hall. 

(This post has several image galleries. Click images to enlarge.)

We pulled into the driveway in front of North Hall and proceeded to the parking lot (today that driveway no longer exists, and that parking lot is a very large science building). When we got my things for the week into my room, my dad looked around and said “how could anyone live in a little room like this with white walls for 4 years?”

In addition to all of my family going to Penn State, they also all either attended the local satellite campus and/or commuted to Main. My family is many things, but adventurous it is not.

The back of North Hall, where I stayed during writing camp and lived Jr. Year.

The back of North Hall, where I stayed during writing camp and lived Jr. Year.

The following morning, I found my way to the lower level of Steele Hall, noting the small scummy pond by the giant tree next to it. The desks in the room were arranged in a half-circle. Eventually the instructor breezed in wearing khakis, a button-down shirt with the top 3 buttons undone, a navy blue blazer, and Birkenstock sandals. He announced to us that he had just arrived at Susquehanna, where he would now be teaching, from Cambridge, MA. He had a southern drawl. His name was Tom.

That morning, we went around the room and introduced ourselves. My ears perked up when I heard a girl across from me say that she was from the town right next to mine — the town where my mom grew up and where my grandparents still lived (turns out our families knew each other). We became fast friends after that. We would also be roommates for the first two years of college, and she is still one of my best friends today.

I fell in love with writing camp and being around people who liked to read, write, and share ideas. I loved being able and encouraged to explore my thoughts with a creative outlet. I loved learning about the constructive criticism process and how to evaluate writing. The lessons I learned in that one week of workshop have remained some of my most valuable.

Dyeing my friend Jason's hair in the bathroom in the basement of North during the second year of Writer's Workshop, c. 2000.

Dyeing my friend Jason’s hair in the bathroom in the basement of North during the second year of Writer’s Workshop, c. 2000.

I loved it so much that I went back the following summer and took my friend Jason with me. We weren’t in the same class, though. That year he had Tom, and I was in Gary’s workshop. Again, I can remember going around the room and reading parts of our stories out loud. There was a girl sitting across the circle from me and she was writing about music, so I already felt a particular kinship with her (I was heavily involved in the music program at my school — marching band, concert band, two jazz bands, wind ensemble, and orchestra). She referred to a clarinet as a licorice stick. I never forgot that. A little over a year later, I walked into my very first college class and the licorice stick girl was sitting there, two seats down from me. We became close friends as we were both English Secondary Ed majors. We lived together senior year, and today we’re still good friends. We live about 15 minutes away from each other, and, in addition to being in Rotary together, we also both share a strong fondness for reading, books, and nerdy things of the sort.

When it was time to actually apply for college, I had fallen so deeply in love with Susquehanna that I couldn’t even fathom going anywhere else. I’d had my parents take me back during the school year so that I could attend Writing in Action Days, which were essentially just HS kids learning what college English was like.

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My parents forced me to at least explore my options. I walked out of a tour at Juniata after the tour guide said, “I think the English Dept. is off campus in a house somewhere?” I visited Lock Haven and the dorms seemed like cinderblock jail cells, not to mention the campus just felt totally blah to me. I remember my dad getting mad and telling me that I needed to have a backup plan. He put the applications for Penn State and IUP down in front of me and told me that I would fill them out and send them in (spoiler alert: I never did). Ah, the days of filling out applications by hand. I applied Early Decision and told my parents that I would know by December 15. If I didn’t get in, I would worry about it then. I was so sublimely happy the day I got that acceptance letter in the mail. It was the day of our winter semi-formal — December 15, 2000 — and I can’t entirely remember reading the letter because I lost all sense of awareness, but I told anyone who would listen to me that night. I was so excited to be a Susquehanna Crusader.

I loved my time at Susquehanna, even when things got tough. I think a testament to that is my junior year. I was taking between 18 and 24 credits and working 2 on-campus jobs (nothing compared to senior year, when I worked 3 jobs while student teaching and taking one night class). I started having anxiety attacks. There were days when I could barely get out of bed. I ended up quitting my calculus class 6 weeks in and taking a voluntary F at the Dean’s advice because it wasn’t worth the stress it was causing me to try to keep up when my adjunct professor offered one office hour a week, which I’d been religiously attending and getting nowhere. On top of all of that, it was the same year I was diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder and Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Despite that, I will still maintain that it was one of the best years of my life. 3/4 of my friends all lived in the same dorm. It was great!

Hassinger Hall, where I lived my freshman year.

Hassinger Hall, where I lived my freshman year.

Susquehanna has meant so much to me over the last 17 years. It was a place of possibility on July 9, 1999 when I first went there. It was independence and the cusp of everything on August 24, 2001 when I moved into Hassinger Hall for freshman year. It was a place for fear, uncertainty, and real conversations about the ways in which the world would change when, 18 days later, 9/11 happened. It was the fun I had making our own fun with my friends. It was the pride I felt when I learned that one of my professors had recommended me to work at the Writing Center, and even more the following year when I became the Peer Tutor Coordinator there. It was the professors who taught me so much about the subject matter, but also about life. There are a few of them with whom I am still in contact today.

And that is all to say nothing of my friends. Susquehanna gave me lifetime-level friends: the girls from writing camp who would become my roommates (3 in total — one was a summer roommate); the girl on the bus to freshman orientation volunteer day who would be in my French class and then become one of my good friends; the girl who lived next door to me freshman year who would soon start dating one of the guys we hung out with and later marry him and have a baby (whom I recently got to meet and she is adorable); the guy I knew from pep band who was interested in one of my good friends and has ended up becoming more a brother to me than my biological brother. These are all some of my favorite people in the world — still —  and I’m fortunate to be living near several of them so that I still get to see them. I felt a connection to Susquehanna and the people I met there that, to this day, I have never experienced anywhere else. That place and those people all just felt like home.

The Susquehanna River from the Isle of Que, c. 2012 (Photo: Amy Biddle)

The Susquehanna River from the Isle of Que, c. 2012 (Photo: Amy Biddle)

To try to give back to Susquehanna for all that it has given to me, I made every effort to stay involved after graduating. I have donated every year for many years and usually visit campus at least annually. I participated in surveys I was sent and volunteered to sit on panels for students approaching graduation. I worked with interns and connected with undergraduate students to exchange emails with them about SU and life after SU. I wrote letters and sat on my 10 year reunion committee. Most recently, I became what the university has deemed a “Champion for Growth.” Everything up to this point is why what comes next hurts.

1930938_512115230244_942_nI have always felt a great deal of pride to be a Susquehanna Crusader. I have always, always, since I was 16 years old, interpreted the Crusader name as pertaining to effecting change and campaigning for the greater good. I never considered that we were named after fighters who were all about killing, raping, and pillaging. When someone says they’re on a crusade for something, I interpret that to mean they’re seeking positive change.

So when Susquehanna recently announced that it intends to change its name from the Crusaders to something “less offensive,” many of us were scratching our heads. Yes, originally those who fought in the Crusades were terrible people. But that was never the story behind Susquehanna’s name (it had to do with sports). It was at Susquehanna where, as an English major, I learned how language evolves over time, and I don’t know anyone who hears “crusade” or “crusader” used in common, casual conversation now and immediately thinks of The Crusades as being the primary context.

861157_677760026744_1157948300_oI’ve come to accept that this change is going to happen. It wasn’t one that I was initially very enthusiastic about at all, but over time I found peace with it. I’m not necessarily opposed to it (although the new name options are all lame), but I also find that it’s severing me from that connection that I have to my university, and not because I’m angry and willfully cutting myself off like so many other alumni are. It’s because I feel like they’re just letting me go. So many alumni have expressed this same concern (or something similar). Some have done it in really obnoxious ways that deserve to be ignored. But some of us have expressed it calmly and with more tact and thought, and we’ve still been ignored. The most I have ever seen it addressed was the day that they announced the name change would happen, and they said “many of you will be upset about this,” and then nothing.

Just like it hurts when you realize that you no longer matter to someone who matters so much to you, I’ve been surprised by how much it hurts to feel like I no longer matter to Susquehanna. That is perhaps why I am most upset over the name change, rather than the name change itself. The focus seems to be on prospective students, current students, and young alumni. Somewhere in the very recent past, I ceased to be young alumni, I guess. Maybe I didn’t donate in chunks of thousands or even hundreds of dollars at a time. Maybe I didn’t get an award from the POTUS or publish a book or win an Emmy. It’s great that those particular alumni were able to accomplish those things, but I wish that I didn’t feel like extreme donations and achievements were the only things that matter to Susquehanna anymore.

You know when you’ve known someone for a long time and they just seem to change so much that you find you can’t recognize them anymore? They get new clothes and people start paying attention to them and suddenly they’ve sold out and their egos are the size of Texas? That’s how I feel about Susquehanna right now. Jaded. Jilted. Unimportant. A little resentful. Old news. I don’t know where I stand with SU anymore and it’s giving me quite the identity crisis. If I’m not a Crusader, what am I? I’m not on campus to adopt the spirit of whatever the next mascot will be.

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North Hall (right, where it all started). Fences added, driveway removed, parking lot is now massive science building (left). c. 2013.

It’s not the same school that I went to. Metaphorically and, in many ways, physically. The day of my graduation they were ripping booths out of the wall at our “beloved” Encore snack bar to build something called Benny’s. They transformed Degenstein’s Mellon Lounge from an open space with lots of seating to a swankier looking lobby with a Java City and then a Starbucks. They transformed the cafeteria from a space that looked just like an airplane hangar with multicultural flags hanging from the ceiling and a neat fireplace at the side to a modern-looking, fireplace-less, lower-ceilinged, one-doored eatery. They purchased the low income housing and turned it into upscale student housing. They took away the field where, at the beginning of Fall Semester 2002, we all laid on blankets watching Van Wilder on a blow-up TV, and they built suites there. They added a plaza with a fountain on the space where I collected leaves for my summer environmental science class in 2004. They turned the Catholic church into a health center. They turned the rectory into the writing department. They turned the parking lot I used to look across to figure out if Sig Ep was open into a gigantic science building (and they revoked Sig Ep’s charter). They turned the field where my friend and I played catch and had picnics into a parking lot. None of these changes hurt a lot. They were just changes…. understandable that the university wants to modernize. That’s fine. It never stopped feeling like home throughout all of that.

But the name change is a big one, especially as it’s left me with this feeling of displacement in a place that always been home. If this is Susquehanna’s final move to shake off people like me who care deeply about the school and feel like it is an indelible part of who they are, they’re certainly doing a good job of cutting us off and letting us go over a differing opinion. I find this displacement more disappointing than any name change, itself.

All photos are the author’s except where noted (click gallery photos for captions). 

UPDATE: 2/9/16 7 pm: I never expected the response this post would get – nearly 1000 views in 24 hours. I want to say thank you to all who have read. I don’t expect that everyone shares the same opinion or sentiment. While I am approving most comments, I will not approve comments that make no sense or comments that are rude, arrogant, and/or making personal attacks. This is my comment policy for all posts on my blog. Thank you.

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24 thoughts on “I Went to Susquehanna and All I Got Was This Identity Crisis

  1. Thank you for your words. I’ve been struggling with my feelings over all that has occurred in the past year. Add to that, I was just on campus for my 25th anniversary of graduation with dear friends so the loss feels even stronger for me right now. You nailed it!

  2. ‘I’ve been surprised by how much it hurts to feel like I no longer matter to Susquehanna.’ – That one thought says so much, summing it up perfectly. Thank you for writing such a moving article.

  3. I wonder if you would have felt the same way back in 1964 when Susquehanna decided to admit its first African American student. For the previous 106 years it had been a place for white students. I imagine that there were a lot of SU alums who were outraged that there were black students attending their alma mater.

    • I think that’s a positive change, and perhaps the very nature of the crusade that I wish to see the school further explore. That, to me, is the nature of the Crusader spirit: effecting positive change.

  4. Nicely written article. Having said that, the name of the mascot has no impact on my identify or how I hold fondly to my time at SU (Class of ’96). It was about the people, students, faculty and staff who made the community not what it was called that made it a very special place.

  5. I appreciate your thoughtful response to this change… and I agree with it! Thank you for taking the time to express your thoughts in writing – since you did so for many of us!

  6. The surface of the campus and the professors and staff is always changing, so we rely on the Crusader as our constant. The one facet of going to SU that never changes. That’s what many of us hang onto. The mascot change is an unnecessary one.

    At this point, there’s nothing at the campus to which I can relate. All of my professors are retired or passed away. The campus is much different than it was in 97. I’ve been back to see the changes, but there is nothing to draw me there now.

  7. I can’t agree more, Jen B. This has perfectly captured how I’m feeling too. I’m disappointed and sad over the friend I’ve lost. SU was an unbelievably impactful place for me and it’s too bad other students may not be afforded the same type of experience.

  8. “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” You said it yourself, your Susquehanna experience, as with so many of us, is founded in the relationships you made: friends, professors, etc. Your identity as an SU alumna is based on how your experience on campus and beyond has shaped who you are today, not just because of a label. As we go through the changes and shifts in our personal lives, the “labels” change with us: Mom, Mrs. Professional titles, mid-life, senior, etc. Our experiences and lives as undergraduates were wonderful, and so, still “as sweet,” no matter the moniker.

  9. As I said the first time we talked about it, I understand perfectly the superficial reasoning for doing something like this:
    •At a time when small liberal arts colleges are a dime a dozen, this allows SU to call attention to itself with a big brand change.
    •At a time when cultural sensitivity is at a notable high, it allows them to draw even more attention by publicly exorcising its ‘offensive’ demons.
    •We aren’t the ‘Buckeyes,’ the ‘Spartans,’ the ‘Tarheels, etc. The university culture isn’t built around the mascot, so it shouldn’t cost them any name recognition to change it, and they’re hoping (clearly) to pick some up.
    Superficially it should be a P.R. win-win.

    But most of us didn’t go to SU for superficial reasons like brand. We went for the underlying culture, the one that showed itself in the charm of the campus, the personality of the student body, and the value of the education. Not the name we slapped on the sports teams. The mascot was just a small piece of the culture. Whether intentional or not, terming it ‘offensive’ with little warning to those who still identify with it was a slap in the face; it was a declaration that there was something wrong with the SU we attended, that we still remember fondly.

    But even that I think most people would have come around on it if some attention had been paid to pressing the flesh on this, doing some ground work, taking the time to get people on board. You know, having an actual discussion.

    What bothers me is that this is not a discussion on culture. It’s just a brand move, and it seems, as much as SU depends on alumni, we aren’t a part of that brand image. It remains to be seen if the good P.R. outweighs the number of their own fold they alienate.

  10. I agree with what you have written. I am and will always be a Crusader. The 5 new names are lame as you noted. Susan, class of ’83

  11. Beautifully written. This pretty much echoes my exact journey…HS summer music camp sealed the deal, followed by early admission and a 4-year journey of friends, learning and discovery. You aptly express my current state of mind. Despite living far away from this wonderful community, Susquehanna will always be in my heart and I will always be a Crusader. You are a true Susquehannan…astute, thoughtful, passionate and obviously dedicated to your craft. Thank you for expressing so eloquently what has been on the hearts and minds of many.

  12. SU, as a result of its desire to become politically correct, became a laughingstock on nationally syndicated talk radio and on our nation’s most highly rated cable television network. I am certain the administrators and faculty members who were so gung ho about changing the mascot name never anticipated how normal Americans who live in the real world and who must overcome significant problems every day would react to learning that supposedly highly educated people were so preoccupied with such unmitigated trivia. We will never know how many parents of prospective students heard SU being uproariously ridiculed during morning and evening drive-time broadcasts and made mental notes to cross SU off the list of colleges to which they were willing to pay astronomical tuition for four years. I have no strong emotional attachment to being a “Crusader.” I do, however, have a vested interest in the reputation of my undergraduate alma mater. I don’t want the name “Susquehanna University” to elicit snickers. Right now, in many quarters, it does.

  13. I enjoyed reading your article just because it was so well written and engaging. Three brothers, my husband and our daughter are S.U. grads ’63, ’64,’65, ’67and ’91. I really like and agree with your definition of the Crusader: A force for good. But it appears that what once was good is now evil and what was once evil is now good. Keep writing to promote what is good.

  14. I don’t take the name change so deeply; I never felt any deep attachment to or affinity for SU. I loved my time there, and was involved and an advocate. Once I left, though, I realized if I didn’t donate, there was nothing there. My final ounce of caring about SU came when we visited with our kids (not my first visit, but my husband’s, also an SU alum, in 15 years, and the kids’ first). Somehow that got me on a list to earn calls and letters, again, about donating. The slick pieces highlight growth of the campus, and accomplishments of current students, professors, and alums. Since our oldest was just about 2 years from starting her college search (she had no interest in SU, because of its size and location, which didn’t bother us at all), I looked up SU. The school has fallen in the rankings of every major ranking system. It’s averaging around 125 for small liberal arts universities, while quite a few others within a couple hour’s drive are in the top 100 or even top 50. The comments on quite a few student sites were negative -the housing (not only do you HAVE to live on campus, there are issues on every level), guidance, the business office, you name it. Yet little tiny SU charges almost $50k/year. Nothing added up. I looked at at least 7 sites and none portrayed our alma mater as positive, or as a springboard for success. Shortly after this, I went back to SU, and was shocked at the blase attitude they showed alum for this “special” weekend-poor food, complete disorganization, ridiculous venues (that “nightclub” is a sin, even if it’s just for students), lack of activities, etc. The students seemed as if they were sleepwalking. No one, aside from the cheerleaders after a single SU touchdown, showed any life. It was just boring.
    Of course, though, I got numerous calls to donate after that.
    When the name change thing came up, I was already gone. That just sealed the deal.
    I loved SU when I was there, and will always hold those memories as some of the best times of my life. As far as the school itself goes, no thanks. I already feel more attachment to the school my oldest attends and more attachment to the schools our second child is considering.

    • Thank you for sharing your story! I can definitely understand some of those sentiments. I was on my 10 year reunion committee and even as part of the committee didn’t feel like SU cared too much about making alumni want to come back. There was a big to-do for the 50 year reunion, and there was a lot of stuff for alumni with children (and only for the children), but there was nothing to do. We spent the whole day walking 6 laps around campus, went to the football game, and then spent a few hours at BJs, which wasn’t on campus and was still the best part. It was just sad. Even a lot of the committee didn’t show up for the event. It wasn’t much of an event. I loved the create-your-own-fun nature of SU, but do agree that they have to try a little bit, and I’ve seen that dwindle in recent years. Even when I was there I remember things happening around campus for homecoming. I don’t know. It just makes me so sad. I loved SU so much and I’m starting to just feel so jaded. I hope that your children find schools that they love!

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