Not long ago, calling someone a "nerd" was an insult; a form of bullying. These days, with superhero movies ruling the box office and 70 percent of video game enthusiasts averaging age 30, being called a nerd is no more than a friendly jab.
When Alex Pennington, a sophomore majoring in management information systems, set out to organize Wichita State's Nerd Union, he tapped into that trend of nerdiness and started a real buzz on the Wichita State campus.
Nerd Union has roots in WSU's Student Activity Committee (SAC) which, until this year, had a gaming committee to host events like competitive video gaming, board games and other entertainment on campus. They were the reason Pennington joined the SAC, and when the organization folded the gaming committee into the general events committee, he felt bothered.
"The people I met there, the stuff that we had in common – I felt that it was a group that was important to me," said Pennington. "It gave me the ability to meet other people like me."
That's part of the draw of Nerd Union: A lot of students fall through the cracks between students groups, which are an important aspect of college life and an opportunity to develop experience and leadership skills. Nerd Union is also a social opportunity for those who might otherwise feel out of place.
Ally Guerrero, for example, takes the spin on sterotypes one step further: girls can like nerd stuff too.
Guerrero is a junior from Garden City pursuing a degree in physical therapy. She's into video games, card games and Marvel comics, and says that without Nerd Union she probably wouldn't have many friends on campus or in Wichita.
"It's a great place to make friends and have fun," she said, "a mini-reprieve from the everyday stress of classes."
Nerdiness for everyone
Nerd Union, which has around 25 members, is open to anyone who shares their interested, even a little.
"We're a very open group," said Pennington. "You don't have to be hardcore to join. We change up the activities each week and we're pretty relaxed about attendance, so there's no big commitment. Anyone can drop in and just have fun."
Beyond its weekly activities, the group's first big event will be a Live Action Role Playing (LARP) tournament, "War of Thrones," word of which has started to spread the group's name around campus. Larping is something Nerd Union members have done among themselves before, but the idea to host a huge mock battle came when someone suggested that they get the fraternities together for it.
"My first thought was, 'the fraternity guys are just going to laugh at us. They're not going to think this will be a good idea,'" said Pennignton. "But when I talked to them they were excited. It surprised me to see how much interest there's been from all over campus, from groups and places that are not typically nerd-zones."
While Pennington is planning to make the LARP tournament a yearly event, the Nerd Union also has other ideas, like reviving the gaming committee's most popular event, "Pokefest," a celebration of all things Pokemon.
"Our main focus is on our immediate members, though," Pennington said. "We want to provide week-to-week activities, but we also want to reach out and provide entertainment for the entire campus."
While all things geek might be trending right now, for lifelong nerds the experience of having their interests actually be interesting to the general public is something that's hard to get used to. Still, the change is welcome.
"With 'War of Thrones' coming up," said Pennignton, "we've started to hear our name around campus, and that's new. Lots of people seem to know about the Nerd Union, and we overhear people saying cool things about us. We've actually made an impression on people – it's exciting, and I hope it really catches on at Wichita State."
"I think the Nerd Union is going to have a grand influence on WSU," she said.
The Nerd Union meets twice a week, from 6:30-8:30 p.m. Mondays and Wednesdays, in Ahlberg Hall, Room 220. The "War of Thrones" LARP will take place at noon Saturday, April 26, at Fairmount Park. Registration for LARP teams is already closed, but everyone in the WSU and Wichita community is invited to show up and watch the fun.