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May 25, 2016

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UT Dallas Magazine: Students Describe Campus Culture as it Matures

Smarts Required. Nerdiness Optional. A Culture of Acceptance Encourages Students to Follow Their Passions

Editor's Note: The following are excerpts from "Come Together," the cover article in the latest edition of UT Dallas Magazine. The piece was written by Michael Merschel, an editor at The Dallas Morning News.

Comet Con, UT Dallas

Huy Dang (left), garbed as a medic from the video game “Team Fortress 2,” posed for a photo with Jonathan Popa — or rather, Mario — during Comet-Con.

Not long ago, in a Galaxy Room right in the middle of the Student Union, several dozen students gathered to learn the art of mock swordfighting and to use 3-D printers to fabricate tiny Pokémon characters.

In the crowd, you might have seen one of the Mario Brothers walk past. Down the hall, a student did a brisk business selling handmade polymer clay charms of Baby Groots (from Guardians of the Galaxy) and Personality Cores (from the game “Portal”).

An alumnus who has taught classes on History and Design of the Role Playing Game is demonstrating a card game he helped create that mashes wizards with superheroes with robots. “Roll your 2d6 against me,” he instructs a potential fan who is holding two six-sided dice. “That’s a 10! You killed me!”

Amid this scene, a group of women — one dressed as a Time Lord, another in a bright blue wig and holding a stuffed leek identifying her as Hatsune Miku, a singing computer program — ponders the question: Is The University of Texas at Dallas much of a nerd school?

They laugh. “Oh, yeah.”

“I think the majority of people at UTD are pretty nerdy,” declares Bailey Turner, a sophomore studying arts and technology. She is carrying a sonic screwdriver and wearing a homemade midcalf gray-and-white dress and a red bow tie with a matching fez.

UT Dallas Magazine
Fall 2015

UT Dallas Magazine, Fall 2015

Read the UT Dallas Magazine online or with the magazine's iTunes app.

She is, as she describes it, a female version of the 11th Doctor Who. “And I have the psychic paper to prove it,” she adds enthusiastically.

Turner and the rest of this crowd are taking part in Comet-Con, which might be a high holy day for campus geekery. So to be fair — this is not necessarily an everyday UTD scene.

And yet — even when it’s not so outwardly visible— everyone agrees that nerd culture is a force that flows through UTD. Surrounds it. Binds it. (As Obi-Wan might say.) It’s a culture partly fostered by the University but mostly, people believe, it’s something that happened organically. It’s a point of pride for many students, the very thing that drew them here. And, again like the Force in the Star Wars series, it has a side that not everyone finds appealing.

But whether the idea inspires smiles or winces, most people agree that it’s a key and probably permanent component of the fast-changing school’s emerging character.

Or, as Diane Trinh, a Keller senior studying Arts, Technology and Emerging Communication, puts it as she sits outside the union, chatting with friends while wearing a Pikachu onesie: “Honestly, there’s a bunch of weird students here. I’m one of them.”

‘So Much More than Just a Smart School’

Senior Brooke Knudtson is not a nerd. She is a cheerleader. And a member of the Kappa Alpha Theta sorority. She speaks about her campus in the positive, encouraging terms one would expect of the Student Government’s immediate past president. And she finds the label “nerd” to be unfair and disrespectful when applied to her University.

Temoc with UT Dallas Cheerleaders

Temoc and cheerleaders, including Brooke Knudtson (third from left), supported the chess team before a match.

“I perceive it, sometimes, to be a negative term. Derogatory almost,” says Knudtson, who is studying political science and who campaigned on a platform that included boosting campus spirit. To her, a nerd is “somebody who’s standoffish and wants to be in tune just with academics.”

UT Dallas, she says, is “so much more than just a smart school.” But she acknowledges that it can be hard to get students to come out of their textbooks and get involved. There are students who “haven’t necessarily come to one event in their whole four years. And that’s so sad to me.”

Michael Blodgett, a senior majoring in marketing and business administration, also sees the school’s antisocial reputation as problematic. Blodgett, president of the Interfraternity Council and founder of the campus chapter of Delta Tau Delta, says that during recruitment activities, he asks students why they chose to come to the University. They rarely mention social activities.

He would like to see UT Dallas become more well-rounded. He’s not opposed to the academic intensity: “A lot of the freshmen are incredibly smart. That’s why they went to UTD. But they just spend time in their dorms, playing League of Legends or whatever computer game they want. And they never really get out and socialize.”

Embracing Nerdiness as a Model of Its Adult Life

Arts and humanities professor Dr. Theresa Towner has seen much of this growth firsthand. She started as a lecturer in 1994, four years after the University first admitted freshmen and has won awards for her teaching excellence. She also happens to teach a popular course on the literature of fantasy, covering the Wizard of Oz books, the Chronicles of Narnia and Harry Potter.

Theresa Towner

Dr. Theresa Towner

Towner, whose office decor includes a hand-knitted Gryffindor scarf and a small model of a Dementor staring down at visitors, sometimes playfully engages her students by reminding them, “You go to Nerd University. Embrace it!” But not, she says, for reasons that have to do with its “techno-geek rep.”

“That’s not it,” she says. “It’s the fact that if you want to do something here, you can do it. And the fact that you want to do something is embraced by other people. You’re not going to get shot down for trying to do something different because honestly this University hasn’t been here long enough to say to you, ‘You can’t do that because we’ve never done that before.’”

That idea of a young, evolving, experimental campus, echoed by many others, makes it tempting to think of the entire University as an adolescent in an awkward stage. It is no longer what it was, and not quite what it will become. Maybe nerdism is a personality it’s trying on, in the same way a teenager tries on different personas, until finding one that feels real?

Towner says yes, but takes the metaphor a step further: She thinks that UT Dallas seems to be embracing nerdiness as a model of its adult life.

Students have thrived as nerds, she says. “And I think that what the students are interested in contributing to is the place that lets them be that. They want this place to be that for somebody coming up behind them.

“They seem interested in not harming what has allowed them to be who they are,” she says. “I think that’s what they are proud of. They make the place that makes them.”

Media Contact: Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, newscenter@utdallas.edu


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