Show School Spirit at an American University

International students may be surprised by displays of school spirit in the U.S. – but should join in.

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Embracing and celebrating school spirit can help international students feel at home in the U.S.
Embracing and celebrating school spirit can help international students feel at home in the U.S.

If you're an exchange student from abroad, you may be a fan of your home university, or at least think it isn't a bad place – although if you're from the U.K., you'll frequently complain with your friends at the pub that the campus is small. But it won't be until you get to an American college that you'll really experience what it's like to have spirit.

While most students around the world like their universities but wouldn't necessarily watch any game events, the sporting reputations of colleges in America make up a huge part of school identities. 

When you join a college you'll often take on their athletics name – whether you're a University of California—Berkeley Bear, a University of Oregon Duck or a Kansas State University Wildcat – as a badge of honor. 

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For many international students, finding oneself immersed in the spirited athletic culture of an American college is likely to be an over-the-top experience. School spirit can be a whirl of mascots and logos and endless songs, chants and complicated hand clapping routines. 

At most schools, students frequently wear school merchandise: People go to class in T-shirts, tank tops and sweatshirts in their school colors, with the university's logo or crest splashed over the fabric. At many schools, "game day" is like a 24-hour party.

While the intense competition of American colleges when it comes to sports can be intimidating, people who are athletic novices don't have to worry. The beauty of school spirit is that you don't have to know anything about sports. 

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I went to numerous games at Berkeley and I still don't have the faintest idea of how football works, beyond knowing that if the ball is traveling one way down the field, to shout "Roll on, you Bears," and if it's going the other way, to shout "Defense, Bears, defense!" 

The latter chant was heard much more often, because the Cal Bears are actually terrible at football. When I was there we lost our "Big Game" against Stanford University 21-3 and suffered five consecutive losses at the end of our season. Regardless, on every game day the streets were filled with students, staff and alumni who still came out to support the school. 

It's cheesy, but the sense of community that grows from people wearing their school colors is a strong and lasting one. Spirit is an overwhelmingly positive and inclusive aspect of American college life, and if you're a long way from home, buying into the collective sense of pride will instantly make you a part of the family. 

Although I was skeptical of the unending peppiness of UC—Berkeley's athletic pride when I started my school year, by the time I left America I was so laden with school gear it now makes up a considerable chunk of my wardrobe. 

Most other exchange students from home have come back equally instilled with a loyalty for their college that even in a year ran much deeper than that of their home university. 

[Find out what to ask U.S. admissions representatives.] 

So whether you're a sports fan or not, ditch the cynicism and learn a couple of chants. You'll start feeling at home in no time. Here's a quick crash course in getting into the spirit of college life. 

1. Learn at least one school song or chant. 

2. Buy an item of clothing with the school crest, name or logo on it. Varsity merchandise will be everywhere.

3. Learn the name of your college's archrival and loudly talk "smack" about them in conversations with your classmates. 

4. Attend a pep rally, where all the students hype each other up to maximum extent before a big game. 

5. Go to a game wearing your team colors, and cheer even if you lose. 

If you want to really get to the heart of school spirit you could even join an organized spirit group, like marching band or cheerleading, or you can risk heat stroke to become the university's enormous furry mascot and dance around on the sidelines during a game. 

The possibilities are endless, because where team spirit is concerned, there's always room for one more fan. Go Bears! 

Emily Burt, from the United Kingdom, studied at the University of California—Berkeley on an exchange program. She will graduate from the University of East Anglia in 2014 with a bachelor's in American literature and creative writing.