Have you ever been grocery shopping while wearing your favorite Penn State sweatshirt when someone shouts “We Are” at you? Hopefully, you responded with a “Penn State!” But maybe you had no clue why someone randomly yelled at you for simply wearing your school’s logo. Not everyone knows what this phrase means to Penn Staters, so let’s provide some historical background.
The phrase is iconic for Penn Staters, especially at football games. Penn State cheerleaders first used the cheer at a game held on September 11, 1976, as told by an article written by Lou Prato in 2011. You might be surprised to hear that the phrase was not initially popular among fans. In fact, the cheer took nearly a half-dozen years to really catch on.
The cheerleaders traveled to Columbus, Ohio, during the 1975 season for the third game of the Penn State football season, when they faced the Ohio State Buckeyes. Hearing the Buckeyes’ chant “O-H-I-O” had them thinking about how to involve the Penn State crowd in a similar chant. They had been considering new cheers that would generate more enthusiasm and involvement from fans throughout Beaver Stadium during home games. The goal was to instill a sense of pride and inclusion in fans of all ages, including alumni.
A few weeks later, the cheerleaders were watching a televised University of Southern California football game when they heard the crowd there chanting, “We are SC!” There was no pause between the “We are” and the “SC” like the Penn State chant. Rather, it was repeated very quickly several times in succession. The cheerleaders got to thinking about this chant and the “O-H-I-O” chant, and they decided to test out their version of “We Are Penn State” in the student section at Beaver Stadium during the following season. It did not catch on at first. So they inserted the pause between “We Are” and “Penn State” and continued their efforts. It took several seasons, the addition of loudspeakers, and lots of practice for fans to embrace the saying.
The words also harken back to the now-famous football players who made history in 1946 when they refused to play the then-segregated University of Miami. The account goes that when told they must leave their black players at home, the team voted unanimously to cancel the game. The following season, the question rose again, and lineman Steve Suhey said, "We are Penn State," adding that there would be no need for any more meetings of that kind. The entire 1947–48 team went on to play Southern Methodist University in the Cotton Bowl in a game that would become symbolic of desegregation in athletics.
Penn State football aside, why did people feel the need to extend the use of this chant “beyond the stadium”? At its core, the phrase instills a sense of community and connection to one university, geographically dispersed. In fact, the phrase resounds in Penn State’s freshman convocations, serving as the official welcome for the incoming freshmen class, and at many of the graduation ceremonies signifying that as alumni, you are still a part of Penn State. At the heart of the Penn State values is community, or the fact that we work together for the betterment of our University, the communities we serve, and the world. And this proudly includes the Penn State World Campus community!
The “We Are” phrase also took on physical form when a sculpture of the words was installed on the Penn State University Park campus. Located at the corner of Curtin Road and University Drive, the sculpture was a gift from Penn State’s Class of 2013. It has quickly become another iconic place to capture pictures on campus.
The next time that you hear someone shout “We Are,” wherever you may be, feel free to respond proudly with a bellowing “Penn State!” Take pride in the fact that the phrase is special to your school and that you now have a family of Nittany Lions behind you for the rest of your life!