The Rock (and other rocks) at Northwestern University

My friend at Northwestern University says there’s a tradition of painting particular rocks on campus.  There’s one massive rock at the center of a few campus buildings, and there are rocks scattered along the coast of Lake Michigan (Northwestern is situated along Lake Michigan).

The rock at the center of campus is often used to promote student organizations, and is known as “The Rock”.  My friend is not entirely sure how the tradition of painting The Rock began, but she knows the rules surrounding the rights to painting the rock.  Should a student organization want to paint the rock, they have to have at least one member guarding it for 24 hours straight.  After the 24 hour period has passed, the organization is allowed to paint anything they please on the rock.  Most of these paintings cover the entire rock and promote the organization itself.  Although the exact origins are unknown, my friend knows that The Rock’s been painted on for quite a long time (she hears many people joke “I swear it was way smaller before,” which hints at the number of times The Rock’s been painted over).   She has not guarded The Rock herself, but knows of friends who have stayed the night by The Rock on behalf of their groups.  Sometimes the progression of  The Rock’s multiple exteriors is documented on a bulletin board.  It’s a popular hangout spot (which I think is partially because of the traditions surrounding it) so it’s good advertising space for campus groups.  Part of becoming a Northwestern student is knowing where The Rock is on campus and knowing the ritual you must perform to win the rights to paint on it.

There are other rocks along the Lake Michigan shore that students can choose to paint.  People can personally reserve rocks but there are no guarantees the paintings will not be painted over.  People who paint the rocks are often couples or graduating students.  My friend and her friend have already looked for a rock and are planning to paint it as seniors.

I think that The Rock and the rocks along the lake are popular spots for painting because rocks are often thought of as enduring objects.  I’ve seen the rocks along the lake myself – these rocks still contain writing from people who have graduated several years ago.  The idea of “leaving your mark” on the college you go to is put in a very physical form through this tradition.

To paint The Rock and the other rocks is a sort of ‘initiation’ into being recognized as a Northwestern student.  Once you’ve been able to carry out these practices you’ve made your impact on the campus.