There’s a lot college students won’t tell you, but their stickers will.

Coined the “latest eco-friendly status symbol” by The Washington Post, water bottles are in the hands of roughly one-third of Americans, and GC is no exception. Students are using their reusable water bottles as a blank canvas for self expression, blanketing the underlying colors in a variety of stickers. 

And it’s not just water bottles, but computers, tablets and journals, too.

“People put stickers everywhere, all over their water bottles, all over their laptops, wherever you want to stick a sticker, you do,” said sophomore Anna McVay.

McVay began collecting and buying stickers when she was preparing to attend Goshen College as a freshman. Her first sticker purchase, which has now sent her on the lookout for additional stickers wherever she goes, was a navy sticker in the shape of Indiana, with the word ‘Goshen’ written inside of it. It was less than $3.

“The college needs to start giving people stickers instead of sweatshirts when they are admitted,” McVay said. 

Senior Ian Martin has a combined total of 32 stickers on his water bottle and computer. But his favorite sticker? 

“A sticker that’s just the word ‘Green,’” he said. “I’ve gotten a decent amount of my stickers for free, and most of them are from places or people significant to me.”

It’s a balance between cost and style when deciding what stickers one should put on their water bottle or computer.

Freshman Greta Klassen said she worries about what other people will think of the stickers on her computer, but she continues to purchase stickers in line with a political theme.

“Girls Can Do Anything.”

“Refugees Welcome. ALWAYS.”

“Defend the Arctic.”

“They match my identity of a woke artist who cares about issues and is mature and has a lot of life experience,” she said.

Students and their stickered devices are visible all around campus – an open computer in the Westlawn dining hall, a row of decorated laptops in the Good Library. And when asked to share the meaning behind their stickers GC students are quick to respond, introducing each sticker along with a piece of their identity. 

“What I love is that almost all of them have cool stories behind them and that they kind of tell the story of my life since I got the water bottle,” said Luke Vance, a junior. “I got a sticker from a professional mountain biker I met randomly out riding. I just rode up to him at the trailhead and asked ‘Are you so and so?’ and he gave me a sticker for being a fan.”

“I got a sticker from my host brother in Peru; I have a sticker that I got from a Goshen College student when I was visiting campus years ago as a prospective student; I have a warning label I got from my job at the Physical Plant that says ‘this fixture has been modified to operate LED Lamps.’ I have about two thousand of these if anyone wants one. I throw them away by the handful.”

Students are ready to share the stories behind their stickers, but has anyone ever asked them about their stickers before? The overwhelming response was no.

For Emma Henderson, senior, that reality is comforting.

“I usually get stickers based off of my current interests,” she said. “Which, four years later, I see as a mistake.”

Other students on campus have tapped into the current sticker fad and have started to sell them. Senior Yejin Kim first made posters, cards and smaller prints of her paintings to sell to fellow students, but when she produced a test run of stickers for the school art sale, they completely sold out. 

“Now I see many people with my stickers on their laptops and water bottles, so I’ve been making stickers of various sizes and designs,” she said.

Julie Reese, professor of psychology, has watched the popularity of stickers grow among her students and sees a clear connection to the culture of the Western part of the world, which focuses on the individual more so than the group.

“This trend highlights the importance of such objects that hold the stickers – computers and water bottles – and the frequency of their use,” she said. “In other words, self-expression is most obvious in the things that represent us, that accompany us, that others see.”

Just like social media, displaying stickers is an act of public engagement.

“I always urge caution in communicating something for the public – be that your 500 friends on Facebook or those who will see your stickers – that really needs a lot of nuancing and detailed context,” she said. “We may only have one chance to give someone an impression of us.”

Over winter break, Luke Vance couldn’t find his personalized water bottle. It appeared to have been lost on the journey back to Idaho. 

“For a moment I was really upset,” he said. “It had been on several long backpacking trips, it had been to Peru with me. It was a physical reminder of some of these trips. Like the sticker I got from my host brother, or the sticker from the bike race.”

“I realized that it was an opportunity to get a new bottle and to start telling new stories,” Vance said. “I didn’t want to be so attached to a physical object. I didn’t even call the airline to ask if they had found it. When I got back to campus it turns out I had left it in a friend’s room and forgotten about it. I was almost disappointed honestly. I wasn’t actually expecting to get it back, and I realized at that moment I was okay with that. Since then I’ve put it on a shelf in my room and haven’t really used it much this semester. If I get any new stickers I’ll probably try and put them on though.”