Squirrel clubs, others attract students at universities across Michigan



DETROIT — When Western Michigan University sophomore Mitch Brownell sings "(I've got a Gal in) Kalamazoo," he substitutes in the word squirrel.

"'I've got a squirrel in Kalamazoo' may be our new slogan," said Brownell, 18, of Vicksburg, Mich., who is studying mechanical engineering.

Brownell said he didn't know about the University of Michigan Squirrel Club when he and a buddy, Matt Kreiger, concocted a Facebook page last spring for Western Michigan University squirrel fans. The school's Squirrel Club page went nuts, drawing 1,600 fans in about a week and photo postings of Kalamazoo squirrels.

"When we Googled 'squirrel clubs,' we saw U-M had one ... and we kind of thought this could be a reality (at WMU)," Brownell said.

Brownell has ordered about 300 T-shirts to sell for $10 each. He has a table reserved for the campus-wide student-group orientation day, and will hand out little bags of peanuts.

"A lot of people think it's kind of out there," Brownell acknowledged. He mentions the group on tours he gives for new and prospective students. He has even mentioned the club to Western Michigan University President John Dunn.

"He thinks we're kind of crazy. We asked him to join the Facebook page a couple of times, and he kind of shook his head," Brownell said. "But we'll get him to join."

Yes, it's back-to-school season. And for college students, whatever their passion or proclivity, there is indeed a campus organization for them, which educators say is helpful.

Brian Dietz, assistant dean of students at Kalamazoo College, said clubs benefit students in a variety of ways, such as honing leadership and communication, budgeting and event-planning skills.

"They're in charge and they have to create the mission, the vision and the goals of the group," Dietz said. Even whimsical and light-hearted pursuits "bring fun and stress relief to members."

One group on the Kalamazoo campus is called the Childish Games Commission, whose members engage in scavenger hunts, zombie tag and a Quidditch tournament based on the "Harry Potter" stories.

Also at Kalamazoo College, students can spend their free time learning fire-eating and circus tricks in the student organization Cirque du K.

Good-natured ribbing between pizza-eating students in a Western Michigan University cafeteria led to the light-hearted creation of the Dignified Educated United Crust Eaters Society. The club was born when freshmen Bryan Jones, 19, of Newport, Mich., and Craig Kowalsky, 19, of Commerce Township, Mich., were ribbing buddy Joshua White, 19, of Delton, Mich., about not eating the crust of his cafeteria pizza.

"The argument went on for a few days and finally Josh said if you feel so strongly about it, why don't you start up a club for crust-eaters," recalled Jones, who at Jefferson High School helped start up a bowling team and an art club. "And as a joke, we applied for official recognition and — surprisingly — we got it."

They devised a constitution and submitted the application. As a registered student organization, they qualify to use campus buildings, can apply for funding grants and attend leadership training.

At Central Michigan University, student Crystal Sanders spends several hours a week dressed as a medieval goblin brandishing a foam weapon. She's a student leader in the school club the Fury of the Called, which has its roots in the imagery of J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy and mythical battle games known as Dagorhir.

Sanders, 23, was reeled in after she saw her husband play. Teams combat each other wielding foam weapons.

"It's faux-contact foam fighting," explained Sanders, an education major who travels to combat other clubs out-of-state.

Although foam fighting, pizza-crust chomping and squirrel watching sound like fun, belonging to such unique organizations also may yield opportunities after college.

Jason Colman co-founded the University of Michigan Squirrel Club in 2002 when he and a buddy were marveling how fat and friendly campus squirrels were.

"It was a joke, but the next morning, it sounded like a good idea," recalled Colman, now 28 and living in Alameda, Calif., where he directs digitization for the University of California library system.

They made posters displaying a squirrel wearing a cap and the line, "Answer the Call: Squirrel Club." A handful of people showed up for the first meeting, but its growth spiraled once they hit the Diag bearing nuts. He thinks it appealed to students who left behind pets at home and wanted animal interaction.

Colman included his stewardship of the Squirrel Club on his resume.

"It comes up in job interviews because people Google me and find it," he said. "It's one of those quirky interesting things that set you apart."

"There are other squirrel-ophiles out there, and we kind of band together," Colman said. "It helps with the networking. There's always a squirrel fan on the committee"


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