By Mackenzie MacDonald and Jessica Robinson
Laurentian is one of few Ontario universities without any homecoming tradition. There’s no designated weekend where all students dress in the school colours; there isn’t a surge in alumni roaming the campus grounds and reconnecting. There’s no football game that draws a crowd of thousands—in fact, there’s no football team whatsoever.
But none of this is to say that homecoming isn’t something current Laurentian students wish for. While many LU undergrad students end up travelling to friends’ homecoming festivities, there’s still a desire to demonstrate our own school pride on our feeds.
This was quickly proven when the varsity men’s hockey team, in the week before their home opener games, decided to rebrand the weekend as “LU Homecoming”. Students posting on UMentioned Laurentian quickly jumped onboard, posting to find out details about events and parties.
Peter Hellstrom, Director of Athletics at Laurentian, explained that this promo was not sanctioned by the school.
“We have players on all the teams run the various team social media accounts—and a couple of hockey players took it upon themselves to call their home opener homecoming,” Hellstrom said. “Our coordinator Bryan Carruthers found it on social media. We had no clue what was happening.”
The misleading title was corrected, “and the boys know to check in with Bryan now before they hit ‘post’,” Hellstrom laughed. But the idea of a homecoming clearly resonated with LU students online.
Hellstrom certainly isn’t against the idea of a real homecoming at Laurentian, either.
“I’m a Laurier grad, and when I walked on Laurier campus 30-some years ago, that was just part of the culture for the school,” he said.
Of course, Laurentian doesn’t have a football team, nor are we likely to get one anytime soon. But there are a few schools that centre their homecoming around other sports. Brock University, for instance, is on its 53rd year of homecoming with no football team.
“Back when I was going to school, because the University of Waterloo football team was so bad, they ran their homecoming around basketball,” Hellstrom said.
“You could base a homecoming around basketball, hockey, soccer. You could have all three events,” he said. “At the end of the day, you want to run the big event with lots of little events inside of it because you want to draw different people to it. If you run a soccer game, hockey game basketball game—any one, we’d be all in.”
Hellstrom made it clear that, on the athletics side, the Voyageurs would be more than happy to organize a big sport-filled weekend to entertain students and alumni.
“We’re in for anything,” he said. “We’d love to step up to the plate and organize our sports schedules around something like that.”
According to Hellstrom, the reason Laurentian’s attempt at starting up a homecoming tradition failed about 15 years ago was because we weren’t considering the longterm.
“We tried a homecoming for about two or three years, and it just didn’t catch fire,” he said. “If we’re going to do it, we need to stick with it for ten years, because we want to build it so that the students that are in their undergrad for the first four years of homecoming see it get better and better, and when they do graduate they’re like, “I want to go back to that weekend.””
“You can’t exclude the kids currently on campus, because they’re a major component to it,” Hellstrom explained. “And once they graduate, they become the alumni that come back and are building on it.”
“If I remember correctly, last time we just targeted some alumni chapters and the like. You really need to track who we have on campus right now. That’s your target, that’s who is going to build on this,” he said.
“You’ve got to market it to your current students; homecoming isn’t just supposed to be an alumni event, it’s a campus wide celebration. Let’s have bands, athletic events, whatever we can do to get people here. And then you get the current kids involved, and it becomes a full weekend of celebration that they’ll just continue to build on.”
Homecoming is typically defined by two things: athletics and alumni. The idea is to have graduates of years passed mingling with the current students, attending the same sporting events and celebrating the same enduring school spirit.
But Dr. Pierre Zundel, interim President of Laurentian, seems to think that the alumni side is where Laurentian’s homecoming hopes fall short.
“We’ve observed that as social media grows, there is less and less demand for universities to provide the opportunity for people to stay connected with each other,” Zundel said. “Most of our alumni are connected to some kind of social media, usually Facebook. We’re seeing some decreasing interest in getting together.”
It was a major alumni event—the School of Human Kinetic’s 50th anniversary celebration—that prompted the conversation about bringing a homecoming to Laurentian. But despite the success of the event, Zundel was still concerned about alumni involvement.
“There was a whole age class that was missing [at the 50th anniversary],” he said. “There were the very recent grads who were there, and then the “long time ago” grads that were there. We’re missing that middle piece.”
“We do want to have stronger relationships with our alumni, but what we’re finding is that our alumni are engaged more in other kinds of activities,” Zundel said. “For example, when we ask them to come in and mentor students, they’re game for that. But they’re not necessarily wanting to do the social piece.”
“When we did a survey a couple of years ago of our alumni in terms of what they were looking from the alumni association, homecoming came up very low on the scale.”
Still, there is something to be said for our alumni not missing a homecoming event that they never had in undergrad. As Hellstrom pointed out, after four years of attending the event as an undergraduate student, the recent grads become the alumni that so look forward to coming back year after year.
Patricia Pickard, a professor of Human Kinetics at LU that was instrumental in the planning and executive of the HK 50th anniversary celebration, feels that the key is to involve the alumni association from the beginning.
“Four or five years ago, when we first put the master committee together for the School of Human Kinetics 50th anniversary, the one thing we wanted was not only that the alumni association, but that the university was supportive of a major reunion,” Pickard said.
“So I had a chat with then-President Dominic Giroux about what we were going to do, and he was really excited about it, because he had had in his back pocket the idea that we were one of the few universities in Canada that doesn’t have a homecoming, and maybe we could use this as kind of a trial to see whether something like this would work.”
With the idea of the anniversary as a dry-run for homecoming in mind, Pickard and the rest of the HK anniversary team kept copies of “absolutely everything—every meeting, every person, everything.” Then, after the event, the team debriefed with the alumni association, about all the went well, and anything that didn’t.
“My understanding, and what I’ve heard from alumni and [their development officer] Tracy MacLeod is that they are still very interested in homecoming,” Pickard said.
Pickard is more concerned about the kind of homecoming had.
“Some universities have disastrous homecomings, with a number of arrests, just a drunk fest. The universities that focus on homecoming as an event for alumni tend to have less of those kinds of problems,” she said. “I’m not saying we shouldn’t have a homecoming for undergraduates; but not like that.”
Even amid the drama at certain, rowdier homecomings, Pickard thinks it would be “great to have.”
“The biggest thing that we found really helped us, was to get all the partners together from the very beginning,” she said. “Whether it was food services, facilities, risk management, security, whoever: everybody got together so that we were on the same page from the beginning. Sure, there were problems, but they were ones we could solve down the road.”
“I think it would be great for Laurentian,” Pickard repeated. “I know there’s interest out there.”
Students certainly haven’t been shy about sharing their desire for a homecoming on social media.
“I just really think homecoming is a traditional part of the university experience, and it makes me sad to see all my friends in other universities across Ontario celebrating with their classmates while we sit back and do nothing,” said Courtney Mahoney, a second year student studying Indigenous Social Work at Laurentian.
“Western’s school administration even tried to change their homecoming to later in the semester to prevent it from getting so crazy, so the students created a FOCO [meaning fake homecoming, scheduled for the original weekend earlier in the semester that doesn’t conflict with midterms],” she said.
“If they can do it, why can’t we?”