On Badger Belonging: The Complexity of Shared Identity at UW–Madison

By Taylor L. Bailey

Assistant Director, Rebecca M. Blank Center for Campus History


The research in this publication was completed as a part of the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Rebecca M. Blank Center for Campus History. The Center seeks to expand and enrich UW-Madison’s historical narrative by centering the voices, experiences, and struggles of marginalized groups. The Center grew out of the Public History Project which culminated in the Sifting & Reckoning physical and digital exhibition in the fall of 2022, curricular tools, an event and lecture series, and a final report. By sharing research, we hope to continue conversations about the history of UW–Madison and discuss how we can all work towards building a more equitable campus community. The nature of historical research is that it will always be incomplete. It is impossible for us to know everything that happened in the past. Therefore, the research in this post is imperfect, as all history is. Our researchers have completed the research below with all of the historical documents available to them at the time of publication.

The University of Wisconsin–Madison has stood as the flagship university of the state since Wisconsin was founded in 1848. For nearly two centuries, there have been thousands of people who have attended or worked at this institution — some carrying on a family tradition and others simply excited to embark on a new educational journey.  Through its history, UW–Madison has marketed itself not only as a school, but also as a community that is invested in the cultivation of well-rounded scholars, cutting-edge researchers, and strong leaders. The marketing tactics change, but are always implemented with the same goal: to foster a sense of belonging at UW. Whether or not people at UW–Madison feel as if they belong within the bounds of this institution, though, is another thing completely.

To “belong,” in its most simple definition, is to be welcomed or fit into a group. As many recent national and global issues moved institutions to think more deeply about diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), belonging became a new way to approach issues of exclusion. Universities like UW–Madison quickly adopted belonging as a core value, expanding DEI work into DEIB (DEI with the addition of belonging). But what does it mean to belong in or to an institution, and how does belonging move us toward equity in workplaces and places of learning?

A red and white paper pennant with a handwritten note pinned to a white string, in front of a black wall.
Visitors to the Sifting and Reckoning exhibition at the Chazen Museum of Art participated in an interactive activity, answering the question ‘Do you call yourself a Badger? Why or why not?’ and hung their responses for others to read. Photo by Bryce Richter / UW–Madison

There are various places where belonging is asserted as central to our university’s mission and values. Our Student Affairs; Division of Diversity, Equity, and Educational Achievement; Admissions, and various other offices all publicly promote the importance of belonging on their websites and in the resources they offer.[1] Belonging is the topic of many symposia and hosted discussions across campus. Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin has even stated publicly that she plans to center belonging in her values and priorities as the leader of UW.[2] With DEIB as the new norm in academia, belonging seems to have become the most enticing method to address equity issues at UW. Yet, what belonging means — how it fits into UW’s mission and values— varies based on where you look  or who you ask. As the Rebecca M. Blank Center for Campus History (formerly the UW–Madison Public History Project) staff prepared for the Sifting & Reckoning: UW–Madison’s History of Exclusion and Resistance exhibition we wanted to understand what belonging meant to our campus community.

In the literal sense of the definition, being admitted to or hired at UW­–Madison means you belong here. But the more abstract idea of belonging — the one that universities concern themselves with — was much more difficult to understand. We asked ourselves these key questions to help us think through this abstract yet seemingly critical piece of being a part of the UW–Madison community:

  1. What does it mean to “belong” at a university as a student, staff, or faculty member? What does it mean at UW specifically? Why does it matter?
  2. How does UW–Madison foster belonging in their community? What strategies, initiatives, or tools do they use to promote belonging?
  3. Who feels as though they can or do belong to this community? What leads to that feeling? How does the rest of the university community­ — especially university leadership — respond to others feeling as if they don’t belong?

With these questions in mind, we thought through all the ways belonging showed up throughout UW’s history.

A woman with a gray sweatshirt and tote bag stands and writes with a pen on a wooden counter.
Visitors to the Sifting and Reckoning exhibition at the Chazen Museum of Art leave written notes as part of an interactive activity. Photo by Colton Mansavage / UW–Madison

On a large scale, university administration as well as marketing and communication efforts have invested a lot of energy into creating a shared identity for all community members, especially students. Doing this effectively for thousands of people from varying backgrounds is difficult. One longstanding approach has been the use of symbols and traditions to unite students, alumni, faculty, and staff alike. Chief among them is the Badger. More than just a mascot, being a “Badger” has become an identity. The success and rise in popularity of UW–Madison’s athletics in the 1900s and the establishment of UW as a world-renowned educational institution only aided in the label becoming larger-than-life. The badger mascot gaining its current proper name “Buckingham” or “Bucky” in 1950 allowed the “Badger” to transform from just a label into an entire identity that could be passed on throughout generations. Calling yourself a Badger meant you belonged at UW and was supposed to carry a sense of pride. Even now, Bucky Badger’s image can be found all over the campus and is closely associated with the name University of Wisconsin–Madison.[3] The word “Badger” appears in nearly every piece of correspondence sent to current and past community members and even to prospective students. Countless emails to students addressed “Hey Badgers!” and fundraising initiatives like “Day of the Badger” only scratch the surface of the amount of times the Badger identity is used in university-wide communications. For a cost, Bucky Badger can even make appearances at celebrations. The mascot is often photographed at weddings and birthday parties where his presence connects these special occasions with pride in UW–Madison.

A man win a gray shirt stands in front of a black wall where red and white pennants hang on horizontal strings.
As part of an interactive activity, pennants with written notes from visitors to the Sifting and Reckoning exhibition hang at the Chazen Museum of Art. Photo by Colton Mansavage / UW–Madison

It seems this shared identity is key to promoting belonging — that being a Badger means you belong here, there is a place for you here, and that place is something of which to be proud. But, knowing this, we questioned what it meant to actually believe you belonged? Was the assumption of a shared identity enough? As our team furthered our research on marginalized people and their experiences with discrimination and resistance at UW–Madison, some of the answers to these questions became clearer. It was evident that belonging often depended heavily upon whether someone considered an “outsider” (based on race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, and/or ability) was welcomed by a group. It was also clear that many marginalized people at UW were not welcomed by the majority due to the discrimination they faced and resisted throughout time. Belonging in the literal sense may have been achieved, but the abstract idea still left more to be desired.

But why does belonging matter? This is the question that we were left grappling with as we prepared to ask our UW community if they felt comfortable calling themselves Badgers. What is the significance of something like belonging in a higher education institution? It was clear as we uncovered more research on the university that belonging — or the lack thereof — was integral to marginalized people shaping their own communities where they felt safe and respected. On the other hand, some stories revealed that belonging was exploited as a buzzword that created tension between the university and the people it served. The ambiguity of the word and its metrics of success made it hard to determine the impact of belonging at our university. We crafted our first exhibition interactive for the physical Sifting & Reckoning exhibition to unpack this complexity, to ask our community directly for their thoughts on belonging at UW­–Madison. The question was simple:

Do you call yourself a Badger? Why or why not?

This question allowed us to think about belonging and shared identity through a local, UW–Madison lens. Evoking the image of the flagship’s mascot here connects this identity to something that is specific to UW–Madison, to Madison, to Wisconsin. It is an image that has been crafted to be a symbol of pride. Under the surface lie more questions: Do you feel empowered by that label? Do you feel as if you have the right to leverage that label? Does being a Badger mean something to you? Do you feel like you belong at UW–Madison?

Data Analysis

Responses to this interactive activity were nuanced. Many responses addressed our initial question regarding the shared Badger identity as well as the underlying questions about identity and belonging on campus. We collected each response while the physical exhibition was on view at the Chazen Museum of Art from September 12, 2022 – December 23, 2022 and recorded each response. We received 1,016 anonymous responses to this question while the exhibition was on view.

As we analyzed the data, we categorized the responses by the type of answer given. The categories were:

  1. ‘Yes,’ I call myself a Badger.
  2. ‘No,’ I do not call myself a Badger.
  3. Something we labeled ‘other;’ typically an answer with more complexity than yes or no, or a response where no clear answer could be determined.

From there, we analyzed each individual response to discover trends within those categories. This process displayed the deep range of our community’s thoughts on the Badger identity and belonging at UW–Madison.

See the full dataset of responses here.



Of the 1,016 who participated in this interactive activity, 424 answered that yes, they do call themselves Badgers. These answers made up 42% of all responses we received, which meant the majority of those who participated felt comfortable calling themselves Badgers. The reasons why community members answered this way, though, varied by person and experience. Analyzing the “yes” category revealed a few similar themes within the responses. After surveying the most common themes, we created the following themed subcategories: [4]

  • Pride in UW­­­–Madison/Feel like they belong/Embrace identity
  • Despite hardship/as resistance
  • With concessions
  • Family or state legacy/pride
  • Desire to be a leader/change narratives about Badger identity or UW–Madison
  • UW brand/networking opportunities

While all responses had their own nuances, the commonalities found between participants who call themselves Badgers revealed insights into the culture of identity and belonging at UW–Madison that had often only been assumed before.

Yes – Pride in UW–Madison/Feel as though they belong/Embrace identity:

The most frequent, recurring theme in this category was people in the UW community feeling as though they belong here or have a sense of pride in the institution, its people, and/or its mission and purpose. These responses often acknowledged the opportunities UW has afforded them as well as the communities they were able to find here that made it feel welcoming to call this place home. UW–Madison was often referred to as a place of which to be proud, whether that pride stemmed from the social action folks witnessed here or the morals people have come to associate with the Badger identity. This subcategory made up a large portion of the “yes” category, which reinforces the notion UW–Madison — whether intentionally or coincidentally — has succeeded in fostering belonging and pride in a subsect of the community.


“Yes, because this school is a part of why I am the way I am. I wouldn’t be myself without going here”

“Of course. In my opinion, every single person at the UW–Madison is a Badger. Being a badger is related to moral values rather than athletics or ethnicity.”

“Being a badger to me is a sense of identity. It makes me feel like I belong here and deserve to thrive during this period of my life. It makes me feel like I have a community, so yes.”

“Proudly yes. I grew up in MSN and was aware of what was going on- on campus –> protests/ tear gas I witnessed as a child. 1st in my family to graduate from college. I’ve worked all over the US and some parts of the world. The UW is respected and I love all advances the faculty and students are making YET can always be better.”


Yes – Despite hardship/as resistance:

This subcategory was particularly interesting to our team because it added nuance to the conversation around what it meant to be Badgers. Participants with these answers used the identity label as an act of resistance or a way to reclaim something they felt was not originally made for them. This subcategory also included those who mentioned that they chose to claim/reclaim the Badger identity even after experiencing immense hardship either at or at the hands of the institution. These participants often recognized that the Badger label meant something to the larger community and public and chose to identify with it despite how others would define them. This subcategory was one of the largest in the “yes” category. Understanding the subversive nature of these participants’ views on being Badgers and belonging to this community allows us to understand the stakes of establishing a shared identity for our community at all.


“I call myself a badger to utilize the resources and influence the institution possess[es] to elevate the voices of underrepresented and marginalized students. This claim also allows me to enter spaces that may not be accessible to our student leaders.”

“Yes, because I’ll do as I please, regardless of whether I am wanted here or not. I am worthy [of] taking up space.”

“I call myself a badger because no one will give me that title besides myself. Like a lot of things on this campus, I constantly advocate for myself as a person of color with a disability. It’s a lonely journey but I’m proud of myself.”

“Yes, I am a Badger. As a queer woman occupying space at a university where I once would not have been welcome, it is my responsibility to call myself a badger for the people before me who were not allowed into this space in the past.”


Yes – With concessions

There were a number of participants who mentioned that they did call themselves Badgers, but they had reservations about the term and what it represented in the greater UW and Madison communities. Respondents in this subcategory often expressed feelings of shame toward UW–Madison’s actions regarding socioeconomic inequities, history of and ongoing issues with discrimination and exclusion, and exclusive nature of the social and professional culture at UW. This subcategory indicated that though folks claim to be in the Badger community, they do not always feel of the Badger community.


“After earning both a BS and MS degree here, I do call myself a Badger. However, learning more about the history (and on-going) discrimination on this campus makes me less proud. We must do better.”

“Yes. I’m from Madison and an alum (2007). I love being a Badger. At the same time, it’s critical that we continue to examine our institutional inequities. Everyone who wants to should be able to celebrate their identity and belong as a Badger. We can do better and I hope (as all alum) we continue to push for a more equitable system.”

“I call myself a badger. However, not [because] of anything the school directly has done, but [because] of the friends I have made. UW and its leaders can do better.”

“Yes but with hesitation and some reluctance. My experience has been tainted by disability discrimination and … inadequate McBurney support. These ruin what positive experience I have had and make me feel less welcome.”


Yes – Family or state legacy/pride

As the flagship university of Wisconsin, UW has a long history of multi-generational families who attend and graduate from the university. This status has also framed UW itself as a source of pride not only for the city of Madison more generally, but for the entire state of Wisconsin. With things like the Wisconsin Idea — a core tenet of UW–Madison — connecting the success of the university to the success of the state and the world, it is not a surprise that many people feel connected to UW without ever stepping foot in a classroom or an administrative office. It is also why you see so many UW stickers littering back windshields and flags waving Badger pride outside of bars and grills across the state. Many participants in this subcategory mentioned the strength of their familial ties to the university or their pride in the state as their reason for calling themselves Badgers. This subcategory showed how nostalgia and legacy plays a significant role in how people connect to UW and feel as if this is a place to which they belong.


“My grandma, my great grandma and great great grandparents were born and raised in Madison. I have badger blood 100%.”

“Yes, because of the ferocity I live with to make my city proud. Love Madison and I love the Badger! Go Bucky.”

“Yes, I call myself a badger as a first-gen low-income student because it signified my parents’ dreams – their American dream for me. Yet on a day-day it’s hard to say.”


Yes – Desire to be a leader/change narratives about Badger identity or UW–Madison

UW–Madison is a leader in its field as an R1 research institution, and maintains that status by pushing its students, staff, and faculty to uphold the prestige that comes with the name and subsequent brand. Though this subcategory accounted for a small percentage of “yes” responses, this idea of a Badger being synonymous with being a leader was present in quite a few responses. Participants in this subcategory felt as if it was their responsibility as Badgers to be changemakers and that it was a core tenet of being a part of this community. Ushering the university toward positive change and impacting the lives of others made them feel as though they belonged here.


“Yes. A badger uses their education to better the lives of others, follows the Wisconsin idea. This is why I am here, that’s why I study, and that’s why I’m a badger.”

“Yes, because being a badger means being a part of a community whose goals are to create a new generation on a united front.”

“Yes, because I am a small part of the change and diversity on this campus. I work everyday to shift the ignorant nature of this school and while it’s not a big change, even my presence disrupts bigotry.”

“Yes! I am an active student on campus dedicated to making the UW a better place. That’s what a badger is to me.”


Yes – UW brand/networking purposes

The university’s branding plays a large role in how it is perceived across the nation and the world. As an R1 research institution and also a member of the Big Ten conference, UW has a unique brand that ties its global status to both academics and athletics. This subcategory noted how many people use the university’s brand to their advantage and adopt the Badger identity because of it. Whether it is because they were avid Badger sports fans or used the Badger identity label to network with alumni for resources and opportunities, those who fell in this subcategory mentioned they felt comfortable calling themselves Badgers because of the work UW has done to securely establish its brand throughout the years so that it means something in the world and to the community.


“Yes, because I love to cheer on the Badgers and watch their sporting events.”

“Yes, I feel as though the Madison community emphasizes being an alumni and the support of the alumni network is definitely felt as a student, on Wisconsin!”

“Yes, when it’s convenient to identify myself as one – people from Wisconsin are friendly if you do so.”



The “no” category had the second greatest number of responses with 389 of 1,016 total. This category accounted for 38% of total responses received and revealed that a significant portion of the participants in this interactive did not feel comfortable with the shared Badger label for some reason. Like its positive counterpart, the “no” category varied in reasons why participants answered this particular way. After analysis, the responses in this category were sorted into the following subcategories based on common themes to glean more nuanced information about belonging at UW: [5]

  • Do not feel like they belong/feel safe at/connected to UW–Madison
  • Reject label as act of resistance/due to discrimination/not proud of UW–Madison
  • Issue with the Badger brand/party culture/association with athletics
  • Faculty and staff feel outside of the community
  • Hope to one day change their mind/the narrative of being a Badger
  • More than a Badger/problem with the shared identity

Each response was unique, yet the stark similarities in this category particularly allowed us to understand what it is that prevents our community from feeling the sense of belonging that UW tries to facilitate across campus.


No – Do not feel like they belong/feel safe at/connected to UW–Madison

This subcategory was the most popular of the “no” responses. Many participants put it quite simply— they do not feel as though they belong at this university. Some felt as though their belonging was not prioritized in the scope of the university’s initiatives, while others noted specific policies in place or members of the UW community made them feel as though this was not a label they were worthy of adopting for themselves. This subcategory generated conversation around the ways being a Badger is fashioned to be or feel exclusionary in some way. It also brought  up an important question for us: how many is too many when we discuss people who feel as if they don’t belong?


“No, it feels like you have to ascribe to a certain culture, and that culture was not made for people like me.”

“I don’t. To be a badger often times means to take pride in an institution founded and still active in the exclusion of others. As a minority, it’s easy to feel alone in a sea of thousands here.”

“No. It can be hard to align yourself with an institution that disenfranchises me along multiple identities. Walking around campus I’m reminded of how most of these spaces aren’t meant for me.”


No – Reject label as act of resistance/due to discrimination/not proud of UW–Madison

Many of the participants that answered no to this question mentioned their reason was because UW had considerable work to do in making people here feel safe and as though they belonged. This subcategory often included those who refused to call themselves Badgers while they viewed the institution as doing little to nothing to address problems with discrimination, diversity, exclusion, and safety concerns for vulnerable UW community members. To them, adopting that identity meant showing support for UW–Madison’s shortcomings in areas that did not align with their values and beliefs. The responses in this subcategory expressed ideas of the Badger label being a marker of shame or embarrassment— an identity label that felt wrong to adopt while many community members still felt institutionally marginalized. These responses helped us better understand what some community members think of when they hear the term Badger and how exclusion and discrimination play a key role in whether or not folks feel as though they belong here.


“I study at the home of the Badgers until I see true recognition of systematic hate/abuse and active change. I am NOT a badger.”

“No. Only in rare moments of equality and compassion do I feel compelled to call myself a badger. Most of the time, I wonder what the hell the ethnic studies requirement is actually teaching students.”

“I’ve been a graduate researcher here since 2017, and as I prepare to leave, my answer is still no. I can’t in good conscience lend support to an institution that takes credit for DEI efforts by students while removing safe spaces/ housing.”


No – Issue with the Badger brand/party culture/association with athletics

Many participants felt alienated from the label Badger because of the reputation it carries in social settings. Responses in this subcategory often explained their skepticism with the shared identity marker was largely due to its association with its heavy party and drinking culture, or the Badger identity being too closely tied to UW–Madison’s Big Ten athletics brand. As some community members feel removed from athletics at UW, many mentioned it felt inappropriate to don the Badger label with something they associated strictly with sports and Big Ten culture. Many others mentioned feeling as though the social scenes at the university relied heavily on partying, drinking, and sexual harassment and violence and would not accept the label with the negative connotations connected to it. This subcategory problematized the idea of the UW–Madison “brand” within our community.


“I never have, despite graduating from here. Being a badger felt very much reserved for fans of drinking and sports of which I am neither.”

“No, I’m not proud of the culture that revolves around drinking and partying.”

“No. Athletics season ticket holders with no affiliation to UW are more badgers than those who paid thousands for a degree like myself. Wisconsin residents reap more than students.”

“F*ck no, I’ve been to Langdon St. and if that’s what Badgers are like I’m sure not one.”


No – Faculty and staff feel outside of the community

This small subcategory represented a tension we also noticed in our research. Faculty and staff community members don’t feel comfortable calling themselves Badgers because they see the label as something that only applies to the student body. Participants in this subcategory expressed apprehension toward the shared identity and what it meant for those who were getting paid to work for the university. Many felt as if they were not even a part of the close-knit community the university attempts to create with this shared identity. This subcategory raised questions like ‘Who is in the Badger community?’, ‘How does faculty/staff isolation from that community contribute to the overall issues with belonging on campus?’, and ‘How is the university specifically facilitating belonging for those who are not studying at the university, but are a part of the campus community all the same?’


“NO, I’m a professor. Badgers are students and maybe football from which I’m neither. But I want my students to belong.”

“I work here but I don’t call myself a badger. It’s hard to see how people like me and are treated on campus. I want to tear my hair out seeing the cruelty.”

“No. I work on campus but didn’t attend school here. I associate it with students and athletics.”


No – Hope to one day change their mind/the narrative of being a Badger

For folks in this subcategory, the Badger identity label was one that they did not feel comfortable with at the moment. Whether it was because of what they perceived the university stood for or because they did not yet feel as though they belonged, this group of responses mentioned that maybe if something changed they would eventually call themselves Badgers. Some even mentioned wanting to be an active part of changing the narrative of what being a Badger meant, yet still felt discomfort with the label until work was put in to make the label fitting for more demographics. This subcategory showed the potential for more people in the community to feel as if they belong here, if only certain efforts are made to make it so.


“Never. I care deeply about this institution and who it serves but I don’t see it as a place to be proud of yet, and I want to work to change it so it is.”

“I could call myself a badger but I don’t exactly feel like one yet. Finding a community takes time and I’m willing to wait.”

“I do not yet call myself a badger because I believe I am not yet making a positive impact to push this university forward.”


No – More than a Badger/problem with the shared identity

Some participants rejected the identity label altogether, stating that their personal identity was more than what was summed up in the Badger label. This subcategory questioned the need for a shared identity within an institution in the first place and complicated the tenet that a shared identity makes people feel as though they belong at all.


“No imposed labels function to oppress, confine, and limit. You are more than a badger, you’re you. Labels can never do justice to who we are as people.”

“No, I don’t like the idea of excessively identifying with a group. Can’t we just be the complex and conflicted individuals that we are? Why call yourself another name just for the sake of feeling included?”

“No, because the time I am here will only last so long. I am much more than a badger.”



The “other”[6] category, though the smallest of the three with 203 of 1,016 responses recorded this way, was particularly intriguing because of its liminality. It revealed that many of our participants think of the Badger label as complex and regard their relationship to that identity as dependent on certain things. Twenty percent of all of our responses were an answer other than “yes” or “no” and were divided into the following subcategories: [7]

  • At times/contingent upon feeling of belonging/not sure if label is for them
  • Did not use label, but hope or positive change is grounds for reconsideration
  • Felt like Badgers in a specific scenario
  • Did feel like Badgers, but something negative changed perception
  • Indifference to label/doesn’t always fit their identity
  • Sometimes, due to Badger brand (positive or negative connotation)

This set of subcategories solidifies our thoughts on how belonging is a multifaceted thing that changes shape based on circumstance.


Other – At times/contingent upon feeling of belonging/not sure if label is for them

Many of our community members in this category felt unsure about their place at the university and whether they felt like Badgers. These participants expressed that at times they felt like this identity label was one for them, yet at others they felt as if they did not belong here. There were many who were confused about whether  the label was even for them or what it stood for, which made it difficult for them to either commit to the Badger label or to reject it.


“On and off… I feel like I’m finding my space on campus, but I wish I did not have to go out of my way to find those spaces. Being a badger should equate with pride but I am reluctant to be proud.”

“Yes and no. I’m an international student and trying to fit into the white culture is tough. But I have also put a lot of effort to be here and trying to learn more about the culture. I am a badger because why not? I made it here.”

“Yes and no being a white woman I fit in easily but seeing my friends struggle makes me worried about what being a badger means”


Other – Did not use label, but hope or positive change is grounds for reconsideration

Much like those who dismissed the Badger identity because of the negative connotation it often carries, those responses in this category felt similarly. However, they mentioned that some work toward change has led them to regard the label in a more positive light. Many participants mentioned specific organizations or policies enacted by people at the university made them feel hopeful in the future of what being a Badger could mean.


“As an undergrad I did not, but as an alumna I have been able to reclaim my badger pride in supporting other POC Badgers in their journey of belonging. I see you.”

“I’m making my way toward being a badger. Finding communities to support our success as a bipoc student helps ground myself in the feeling of being a Badger. It’s something I’m still exploring.”

“I go back and forth on my sense of identity as a Badger. As a queer Latine woman on campus, there are limited spaces in which I can find a true sense of community, but I work to be a part of the progress toward the inclusiveness on campus”


Other – Felt like Badgers in a specific scenario

This subcategory was composed of those who mentioned feeling like a Badger in a specific moment in time. Working with a specific professor, hanging out with a group of friends that felt like family, or feeling camaraderie while on an athletic team— these are some examples of moments mentioned when participants felt like Badgers. Otherwise, though, they were unclear of how much the label suited them. This subcategory showed the power of our personal communities and the weight that they carry. The microcosms of campus that folks curate for themselves continue to be the spaces where many people feel as though they belong the most, while larger environments allow for more room for people to feel on the margins of university culture.


“I am proud of my school ONLY because of the efforts and strengths of the activities and minority groups who have fought against institutional racism and classism. These people are the only source of pride”

“Only because I got my graduate degree here. I see too much unequal treatment and faculty entitlement to be more than that.”


Other – Did feel like Badgers, but something negative changed perception

Participants who landed in this subcategory were conflicted with their status as a Badger. Similar to the “hope to one day change their mind/the narrative of being a Badger” subcategory in the “no” category, these participants felt as if they did belong at the university but the outstanding change that needed to happen to make UW more equitable was preventing them from feeling completely comfortable with the Badger label. Their perception of the identity marker had been skewed by something that put the university and its brand in a negative light and left them with apprehension toward calling themselves Badgers. This subcategory again reified the idea that the Badger identity is fragile and community members see the work the university needs to do as integral to whether they feel as though they belong or even want to belong.


“Yes and no as a queer disabled student, I struggle to feel like I belong when so many don’t care about my safety (wear a mask) but at the same time I want to honor how hard marginalized people fight to have a place here and not give up on calling myself a badger”

“In some ways I do and in some ways I don’t. I pride myself on my jobs and academics which, gained here. but when I see how UW is viewed and its history, I struggle.”

“As an undergrad, I feel an immense sense of pride to be a Badger. As a grad student, I have learned more, and am no longer proud. I recognize that my background and identity places me as a “Badger”, I am still working through this.”


Other – Indifference to label/doesn’t always fit their identity

There were a few participants whose responses could only be labeled as an indifference to the Badger label. To them, calling themselves Badgers did not have high stakes or felt the label was not something that always captured the entirety of their identities. This contributed to the overall complication of the shared identity marker and its necessity in higher education. Like those who answered no, I’m more than a Badger, these responses furthered the conversation of whether a shared identity even facilitates more belonging across the campus community.


“I think it matters less of the title and more of who you surround yourself with here. Not defined by the university, but by my peers.”

“Being a badger sometimes feels like [a] forced community. I don’t want to identify with a term. I want to feel the community but my community seems to be growing”

“Yes and no. It’s clearly situational. In Wisconsin I may feel like one, but overseas (where I live) I’m much more than a Badger. 13 years and 3 degrees.”


Other – Sometimes, due to Badger brand (positive or negative connotation)

In this subcategory many participants felt connected to the Badger label occasionally, but it depended on where their pride and/or shame and discomfort lied in relation to the Badger brand. Some people really enjoyed Badger athletics and felt comfortable calling themselves Badgers within the confines of an arena or stadium, others felt like Badgers until negative party culture increased violence across campus, and some called themselves Badgers only in networking spaces to benefit from UW’s global reach. Whether for positive or negative reasons, folks in this subcategory felt their belonging at UW was contingent upon the Badger brand and the reputation it held.


“I honestly don’t know. I’ve grown up here, and I take a class @ UW despite being in high school, but I feel very out of place. As a woman, the male and frat culture here makes me uncomfortable….”

“Sometimes. I feel as though the culture of UW can be hard to keep up with and always fit in.”

“Only when we do well in sports. Something to brag about.”


After analyzing all of the data it became clear to our team that the majority of the participants in this interactive did not answer “yes.” In fact, of all the visitors who participated in this interactive activity, 58% answered something other than “yes.” This indicates different views on belonging across campus than what is often assumed. Whether it was a no, a maybe, or something more complicated that lay in between, our community demonstrated the tension that exists when things as complex and ambiguous as belonging are operationalized and used as institutional markers of success.

What would it look like for all students, staff, and faculty to feel as though they belong at this institution? How do we get there? We asked the community a similar question in the exhibition that helped us understand actions tied to belonging: How will we reckon with the truths in our past to create a better future?

Is it enough to tout increased diversity initiatives, create a shared identity, or even provide communal spaces for marginalized communities? What this interactive activity showed us is that belonging is much, much more complicated than that, and our community sees it as such. With the diversity of our community on the rise, facilitating true belonging would require a personal, empathetic approach. What could that look like within this institution?

It could look like the university putting stakes in the physical, emotional, and professional wellbeing of the community it serves. Or it could look like taking the time, effort, and resources to provide community members with their needs, attending to those most vulnerable with urgent needs first. It could also look like upholding its core values and protecting those within the community who have been unjustly exposed to violence, hate, and discrimination. Regardless of what path is chosen, belonging requires trust, resources, and safety. It requires being open, honest, and receptive to the ever-changing and distinctive needs of those who struggle to feel comfortable and safe here. The abstract “belonging” of higher education institutions is not something that can be achieved with blanket initiatives and a shared identity label. It requires more from us.

When we asked, “How do we reckon with the truths in our past to move toward a shared future?” in the concluding interactive activity, we gave our participants the option of answering three prompts. The first prompt, “I’m inspired by…” was crafted to serve our visitors as a space of reflection; we wanted to know what moved them and how it inspired hope to carry the work forward. The second was “I commit to…” which we hoped would allow people to look inward and decide how they personally would dedicate their time, effort, or resources to eradicating the systemic injustices they had just read about on the walls of the gallery. We wanted people to know that this was only the first step and that things won’t happen if everyday people don’t commit to being even a small part of the change. The last prompt, though, was the most intriguing in regard to our question of belonging: “The university needs to….” It was clear in our research of the university’s history of discrimination and resistance that our campus community— our students especially— were often the ones to advocate relentlessly for equity and wellbeing. They were the ones constantly on the front lines of change at UW. University leadership, though, played and continues to play a pivotal role in what policies get passed, where funding is allocated, who is afforded space, and many other things on campus that could influence belonging. We used this prompt as a space where the UW community could express their needs to university leaders and urge them to commit to actions they thought would move us as a collective toward positive change.

Sifting through the 1,136 responses to this question made some things clear: strong community and access to resources were vital to people at UW–Madison. Having space to form community, feeling safe enough to find community, having easy access to financial and social resources, and feeling as though those resources were equitably distributed across the campus were some of the biggest things that contributed to belonging. Our community was calling for both structural changes as well as these more intricate things that would lead to a shift in culture, create more empathy and promote wellbeing across campus.  As we thought of material and conceptual ways to reckon with our history, we looked toward these answers from our community for inspiration. Participants called on the university to do things like:

“give Mecha and the AISCC new houses”

“fly the Ho-Chunk flag all the time”

“promote sustainable living and working for the lower class, to further promote equity”

“pay grad students more”

“stop collecting international student fees”

“offer free tuition and housing to all native students”

“properly prioritize spaces for people of color in terms of both money and space”

“relocate sport funding to lower tuition”

“spend time in the communities of the 12 native nations”

“hire more black profs”

“divest from fossil fuels”

“improve their response to sexual assault on campus”

“do deep and fearless self assessment and work towards being anti-racist in faculty, sports, classes, housing, and community policies and practices”

“address the mental health crisis”

“put more funding into McBurney to reduce the wait time to get accommodations”

“spend less time virtue signaling and more time doing”

How do we reckon with belonging across campus? What would it look like to implement things that lead to increased feelings of belonging? What kinds of things does our community want to see from an institutional level in order to feel as if they have reckoned with the very complex, sometimes negative, and often notable history of the university?

This— listening to the wants and needs of the community— is how we can truly begin to foster and facilitate something as fragile, elusive, and intimate as belonging. These are only a few of the ideas, but the important thing to note is that our community already has an idea of how to address belonging and help foster it across campus, as well as ideas for both the university and specific individuals to address equity across campus. The question is, are we ready to listen to them?

[1] See the following links for examples: https://students.wisc.edu/who-we-are/strategic-plan/sense-of-belonging/; https://students.wisc.edu/make-a-gift/belonging/ ; https://apps.admissions.wisc.edu/youbelong/https://diversity.wisc.edu/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/Sense-of-Belonging-Resources.pdf; https://students.wisc.edu/badger-dialogues/ ; https://www.supportuw.org/how-to-give/the-raimey-noland-campaign/a-community-of-true-belonging/

[2] Chappell, Robert. “Incoming UW Chancellor Places Premium on ‘Belonging.’” Madison365, May 18, 2022.

[3] This summary does not include the complicated origins of the Badger mascot itself. It is tied closely with the history of early colonization of Wisconsin when white settlers in the early 1800s came to the region to work in lead mines. Miners would create small holes that resembled badger holes during their work, thus creating the relationship between Wisconsin and badgers. Badgers are often depicted and discussed during this period as being mischievous animals that steal things and burrow them into their badger holes. As the badger relationship to Wisconsin grew with the years, many Wisconsinites began to take pride in the badger. Others have thought of it as a symbol of settler colonialism and theft of resources and land. These origins were important as we thought through what it meant to be a Badger and were included in the Sifting & Reckoning exhibition.

[4] The listed subcategories do not include those that were divided into an “other” category, which was composed of funny, irrelevant, and inappropriate responses in the “yes” category as well as those that answered “yes” with no further explanation.

[5] The listed subcategories do not include those that were divided into an “other” category, which was composed of funny, irrelevant, and inappropriate responses in the “no” category as well as those that answered “no” with no further explanation.

[6] It is important to note that this category also included all responses to the interactive activity that were wholly unrelated to the question or inappropriate. These included various drawings, jokes, expletives, etc.

[7] The listed subcategories do not include those that were divided into an “other” category, which was composed of funny, irrelevant, and inappropriate responses in the “other” category as well as those that answered “sometimes” or “maybe” with no further explanation.