New SOU official trying to amp up school spirit

One of the first things Rushton Johnson did when he arrived at Southern Oregon University this summer was throw a big party for all the new students.

Johnson is what many might consider past the college-party-going age — but as the executive director of student life, he thinks it's his duty to show the students a good time.

He assumed the newly created position in August, after moving from Louisiana — and he's brought some of the southern spirit with him, he said.

Johnson is hoping to amp up school pride at SOU through tailgating parties, sports rallies — that feature a mascot for the first time in years — and other community events, he said.

"The goal is to get students more engaged in the experience," he said. "The more engaged students are in what we're offering, the more likely they are to be successful and benefit from being here."

Last weekend, Johnson threw a family-friendly tailgating party before SOU's last home game of the season.

About 700 people showed up, some painting their faces black and red — the university's colors — or wearing Raider gear, he said.

"I think it was successful," said the former dean of students at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, La. "I've consistently been hearing from staff and students, 'We've not had anything like that.'"

SOU, perhaps because it has a high proportion of commuter students and some nontraditional students, hasn't been known to instill a strong sense of school pride in its students, at least in recent years.

Johnson aims to change that, he said.

"What I'm hoping to do is really look at campus traditions and rituals to see if there are any that may have been lost over the years and revive them," he said.

Later this month, Johnson plans to hold a big Midnight Madness event in celebration of the start of the basketball season.

He also plans to bring back the school's mascot, by purchasing a new red-tailed hawk costume.

Already, Johnson's bought all new students an SOU T-shirt and has helped teach football cheers in the dorms.

Even though the university's budget is tight, officials believe the activities are worth investing in, he said.

"As a leadership team, when we believe that there is something important, between our budgets we find the money," he said.

And how does Johnson respond to parents who are worried that all of the parties may distract their students from their studies?

"College is not just about what you learn in the classroom," he said. "It helps them develop socially. They're gaining practical skills that would make them marketable in the world of work."

Contact staff writer Hannah Guzik at 482-3456 ext. 226 or hguzik@dailytidings.com.

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