Delivering American University's news and views since 1925. | Thursday, August 16, 2018

AU students react to the wonk campaign

From dirty jokes to Willy Wonka references, AU student reactions to the “wonk” campaign have varied.

In general, students feel unsure about the word “wonk” itself, but seem to support its definition as defined by AU — an intellectually curious person or an expert in a field.

Eric Fleddermann, a sophomore in the School of International Service, said he initially laughed when he saw his roommate wearing one of the wonk T-shirts, but after learning about the campaign he changed his opinion.

KIRA KALUSH and ANNA SCALAMOGNA / THE EAGLE The Eagle interviewed a few students to get their opinions about the new "wonk" campaign.
He defined a wonk as someone “working hard to learn as much as you can about your field and making an impact and a significant change.”

Fleddermann said he did not think wearing a wonk shirt will get you much respect outside of AU right now. However, he was excited to see an AU student wearing a wonk shirt make an appearance on the Jumbotron at a Nationals games this week.

Patrice Noel, a sophomore in the School of Public Affairs, said she first heard that a wonk was a gay man in Australia. After learning its intended meaning at AU, she said she supports going to school “wonkified” and feels students are embracing the campaign.

“There hasn’t been a class where someone has not been wearing [a wonk T-shirt],” Noel said.

Concerns about the old Australian meaning were brought up early in the creative process of evaluating wonk, according to Teresa Flannery, executive director of University Communications and Marketing.

A definition on brings up the meaning for “wonk” used in Australia during World War I, which was to describe an effeminate man, denoting a gay male. Aboriginal natives of Australia also once used it to refer to a white person.

To address these concerns, the University Communications and Marketing team hired the company TransPerfect to conduct a linguistics study on the word. They attempted to find uses in other languages that might change the intended meaning of “wonk.”

The team also met with Sara Bendoraitis and Matthew Bruno from the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender and Ally Resource Center to discuss whether they would find the widespread use of “wonk” on AU’s campus offensive or inappropriate.

Bendoraitis and Bruno both embraced the term, according to Flannery, and the rainbow wonk T-shirts were one of the most popular of the shirts given away at Celebrate AU.

Jeff Della Serra, a freshman in the School of Communication, said he likes the campaign, while proudly wearing a red communications wonk shirt.

“It’s kind of a funky word,” Della Serra said. “But it catches your eye and ear.”

Other students were not as supportive and some were confused. Tyler Brennan, a sophomore in SPA, said he does not understand what it means to be a wonk or why students are wearing the shirts.

“I don’t want to be known as a wonk,” Brennan said. “It’s not a pleasant-sounding word.”

The AU Undergraduate Senate passed a bill Sunday entitled “A Bill to Gauge Student Opinion on ‘WONK,’” sponsored by Brett Atanasio, sophomore in the School of International Service and Student Government senator for the Class of 2013.

The bill reinforced the neutral stance that the SG had publicly taken and enacted that the Department of Outreach and Recruitment to hold at least one town hall meeting, distribute e-mail surveys and create an online forum to discern student reaction to “wonk” and act as a sounding board for any concerns or opinions.

Dan Bakst, a senior in Kogod, said he believes the campaign is a lame, contrived marketing attempt with no real value.

“I can’t imagine being impressed by that [when applying to college,]” Bakst said.

Bakst also said he does not believe AU should highlight being an expert in a specific field in order to attract prospective students.

“You can learn anything at the library,” Bakst said.

Flannery pointed out that people often warm to the term after spending time getting used to it.

“We would never choose something that had a negative connotation for students,” Flannery said.

University Communications and Marketing is considering holding a town hall meeting to field comments and questions from the AU community some time before Labor Day and Rosh Hashana, according to Flannery.

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