The University of Arizona

Nurturing a Wildcat Identity

By La Monica Everett-Haynes, University Commmunications | November 1, 2011

For many, sharing in a Wildcat identity carries some important academic, social and emotional benefits, as this weekend's Homecoming events will attest.

Do you live and breathe the red and blue? Then you, my friend, must be a true Wildcat. (Photo credit: Norma Jean Gargasz/UANews)
Do you live and breathe the red and blue? Then you, my friend, must be a true Wildcat. (Photo credit: Norma Jean Gargasz/UANews)
UA students in the ZonaZoo section of the stadium put on their game face to show support for the football team at the 2010 homecoming game. Shira Williams, a UA student studying public health, has the image of a Wildcat paw print painted on her face during last year's Homecoming event. (Photo credit: Norma Jean Gargasz/UANews)
UA students in the ZonaZoo section of the stadium put on their game face to show support for the football team at the 2010 homecoming game. Shira Williams, a UA student studying public health, has the image of a Wildcat paw print painted on her face during last year's Homecoming event. (Photo credit: Norma Jean Gargasz/UANews)
Future Wildcats? Megan June, 8, Taja June, 10, and Joan June, 7, attended the Native American Student Affairs Wildcat Family Pride Weekend luncheon with their father, Keith June, a linguistics major at UA. (Photo credit: Norma Jean Gargasz/UANews)
Future Wildcats? Megan June, 8, Taja June, 10, and Joan June, 7, attended the Native American Student Affairs Wildcat Family Pride Weekend luncheon with their father, Keith June, a linguistics major at UA. (Photo credit: Norma Jean Gargasz/UANews)
Alpha Phi Gamma members, like numerous others on and off campus, show their Wildcat pride and identity, from academics to athletics.
Alpha Phi Gamma members, like numerous others on and off campus, show their Wildcat pride and identity, from academics to athletics. "This is an identity they will always have. They will always have gone to the University of Arizona," said Rachel Beech, new students services director for UA Student Affairs. (Photo credit: Patrick McArdle/ UANews)

You wear it, protect it, proclaim it – your Wildcat identity.

As this weekend's Homecoming events will show, ways to showcase one's Wildcat pride, whether related to academics or athletics, is widely divergent. 

But how do you put into motion what is necessary to not only help a budding University of Arizona identity grow, but to be sustained?

The UA Alumni Association, Student Affairs and individual academic units and organizations work diligently to ensure that students, faculty and staff not only develop a UA identity, but nurture it for life.

"What's really important about building your Wildcat community is that you need to find and feel place," said Rachel Beech, new student services director for UA Student Affairs

"It's an important piece of learning about who you are," Beech said, noting that Student Affairs hosts a range of programs and events to inform students about the history of UA and the importance of their Wildcat identity.

Being a Wildcat, then, is about more than showcasing school spirit. It also is about connecting on an emotional, social and cognitive level.

In fact, research has shown that such connections can have personal and sometimes economic benefits via networking, said Jake Harwood, a UA communication professor.

"There are all kinds of reasons why people develop this identity, but it is about belonging to a group and feeling positive about it," said Harwood, an expert in communication and social group identity development. "A school identity is interesting because it is voluntary and has a sort of status and intellectual association." 

This is part of the reason why what it means to be a Wildcat and how that identity is developed can vary person to person and group to group.

For some, the identity begins to solidify after receiving an acceptance letter or a job offer at the UA. Or it may come after moving into a residence hall, getting involved through an organization, or making a peer or faculty connection.

Other reasons are purely competitive, such as developing an affinity for the UA's high academic rankings or athletic rivalries. "So the fact that ASU (Arizona State University) exists is one motivating factor that drives the Wildcat identity," Harwood said.

"For some people, being a Wildcat is partially influenced or strengthened by some sort or rivalry with other schools," he added.

"But there are also real costs when your group comes off worse in those rivalries," Harwood noted. For instance, "for people really connected to the school, a loss to ASU can take an emotional toll and threaten the UA identity.”

And as with any identity, one's Wildcat identity is not stagnant, but one of fluidity, shifting with time and experience, Harwood also said. 

This is why remaining connected to the institution is hugely important in maintaining that identity.

"We want alumni to feel they play an important role in the life of the University and to stay connected over a lifetime," said Melinda Burke, president and executive director of the UA Alumni Association.

Part of the Alumni Association's work is to build a culture of engagement among the alumni population. "By touching the lives of alumni and creating a special connection, we encourage alumni to volunteer and support future Wildcats," Burke said.

"It is important to us that alumni become involved with the University and that they understand how to make a difference by supporting the University as advocates and by helping recruit students," she added. "Our core group of volunteers and members support the efforts of the University locally and around the world." 

For that reason, the organization has a tactical approach for remaining connected to the 260,000 alumni in its database.

In addition to hosting Homecoming, the association advocates for the UA in both philanthropic and legislative circles, remains connected to the three dozen UA alumni chapters across the nation and recognizes alumni for their vast achievements during awards ceremonies at Homecoming and throughout the year. 

"Our goal is to be a touch point for our graduates – a portal for staying engaged with the University and for reaching out to other alumni in our vast network," Burke said.

The Alumni Association also offers Wildcat for Life memberships with multiple choices for joining at different levels of involvement. The phrase, "Wildcat for Life," has since been more broadly adopted as a general slogan for proclaiming one's identity.

Others like the Alumni Ambassadors, Wildcat Pride – the UA's new official LGBTQA Alumni Club – and ZonaZoo support programs and events designed to do the same. 

"When students become members of ZonaZoo, they are becoming part of something that is bigger than themselves," said Hillary Davidson, executive director of ZonaZoo, which also supports academic and community-based volunteer projects. 

"They are not just one person in the crowd, but part of the ZonaZoo family of more than 10,000 fans," said Davidson, a marketing major in the UA's Eller College of Management.

"It gets them excited and gives them a chance to get to know people they otherwise might not know and might also help them realize that they have a common person," she added. "When you have a stake in the University and begin to learn its traditions and history, it gives you more of a purpose and a better chance at wanting to succeed." 

Contacts

Melinda Burke

UA Alumni Association 

520-621-1140

mburke@ag.arizona.edu