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What is an Alma Mater?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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The term alma mater is Latin for “nourishing mother,” and it is used in two different ways in modern English. In the first sense, it is an educational institution, classically a college, and in the second sense, it is an anthem or fight song of an educational institution. Usually in the sense of an educational institution, the term is used in reference to an institution that someone has personally attended. When the term is used to describe an anthem, the speaker need not have attended the institution in question.

Originally, alma mater was used as an honorific for some Latin goddesses who were viewed as kind, nurturing, or loving. In the 1700s, the term came to be adopted in reference to British institutions of higher learning, and the practice spread to other regions of the world. The University of Bologna, the world's oldest continually running institution, even integrated the term into its motto, which is alma mater studorium, or “nurturing mother of studies.”

While this term is most commonly used in reference to colleges, some people use it in discussions of high schools, especially private high schools, preparatory schools, and other institutions that are perceived as more elite than public or ordinary high schools. It is appropriate to refer to any institution of higher learning in this way, whether one has graduated or is still attending.

In the sense of a place of study, this term probably arose as a slangy shorthand. Latin jokes, puns, and epithets were especially popular in the 1700s, and “alma mater” is not the only one to have caught on. Using Latin in the 1700s was an indicator of higher education in Britain, and people threw around terms like this to emphasize their membership in the clubby community of college students, especially in communities where a rivalry between town and gown existed.

The use of this term to describe a fight song or anthem is more recent, although it references the same basic idea of an institution of higher learning as a source of nurturing and knowledge. Many graduates know the alma mater of their colleges, and they may sing along at sports games and other events to express solidarity with the school and its current and past students. Knowing the words can also increase a sense of belonging.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Language & Humanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By golf07 — On Sep 30, 2011

I graduated with a bachelor's degree many years ago. There are a couple college roommates that I keep in touch with once a year or so, but other than that I have very little ties to my alma mater.

I live quite a ways across the country from where I graduated and never really got involved in any extra activities. I had to support myself through school so between school and work, there wasn't much extra time.

Every quarter I still receive a magazine from my alma mater catching me up on the current news. Sometimes I find it interesting to browse through and see if I recognize any familiar places or names.

It seems like such a long time ago, that there isn't much that seems familiar anymore. I don't even keep up to date on any of their sports teams either.

By John57 — On Sep 29, 2011

My first job after graduating from college was working in the alumni center of the university I had just graduated from.

This was an interesting job as I learned about the efforts that were made to keep in touch with the alumni and fostering good relationships with their alma mater.

Those that stand out to me the most were the students who had become quite successful and gave back to the university. It was interesting to see which students from the many different degree programs really made a difference in their field.

By tolleranza — On Sep 29, 2011

@amysamp - I strongly feel more loyal to my undergraduate school than my graduate school.

For me it was because I felt when I was in undergraduate I was able to take part in the university's clubs and events whereas in graduate school I was studying and then studying some more.

Also because I was there for four years and taking a part of more events I have more friendships from undergraduate and therefore it makes for more fun in taking trips to my undergrad college.

So yeah, hands down, I gotta go with undergrad school over graduate school.

By amysamp — On Sep 28, 2011

If someone had asked me what's an Alma Mater? I would have known that it was a college or university that one attended.

I would not have been able to tell the asker that the term Alma Mater could also be referencing a university's fight song or Latin for "nourishing mother" which might be explained by the fact I took Spanish not Latin and at my Alma Mater we called a fight song our "school's song."

What I think is interesting about Alma Maters and loyal fan bases are what do you do when you went to two different schools?

I went to a graduate school that was different from my undergraduate school, and I must say that I feel more loyal to my undergraduate school.

I am not sure if that is because my undergraduate university had a strong athletic culture whereas my graduate school did not.

Does anyone else find this to be true - that they feel more loyalty to their undergraduate school than the graduate school they attended?

By jmc88 — On Sep 28, 2011

I love going to football games at my alma mater, whether or not they have a good or bad team, simply because of the atmosphere and the nostalgia factor associated with my connection to the university.

Whenever I go to a game I feel like I am visiting the past and am actually reliving my glory days of college and am able to remember what it was like to be young and having fun before going on into my professional life.

By JimmyT — On Sep 27, 2011

Being a part of something allows a person to feel more accomplished. By being around people that went through the exact same thing that day did and managed to get through it allows them to feel more connected to the institution.

The graduates of an institution are a unique group of people in that they like to connect with one another even though they may have been complete strangers before saying they went to the same school. After they say that they went to the same school they can talk to each other about the experiences they had and connect with one another about the various topics of conversation involving the school.

By titans62 — On Sep 26, 2011

@Izzy78 - I totally agree with you. I see graduates take so much pride in their schools and do more than just donate money. People do not realize how important graduates are to their schools as they are the ones that give much money to the schools as well as provide a lot of support to events put on by the college.

Even though people pay a lot to go to college it seems like to some people that they want to give something back to the institution that made them the person they are and prepared them for their lives ahead.

Another thing which may play a factor is if the schools has good athletic programs and they could claim they were a part of that institution for several years and cheer on the success of that school's sports programs and be more connected to their success than just a regular fan.

By Izzy78 — On Sep 25, 2011

My alma mater is a small college and it has a very loyal base of graduates. I take great pride in going to the games and meeting other graduates who have come to cheer on their alma mater.

I think that people like to take pride in their alma mater because they have accomplished something in their lives by going to that school and completing their studies and feel like that they should give something back by supporting their school for preparing them for the rest of their lives. I have always felt that school spirit is higher in the graduates than the students and that this may be an explanation as to why this is so.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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