Student Stories

Scav: Past and Present

The Second Annual* 2014 University of Chicago Scavenger Hunt took place this spring, fielding 20 teams that spanned all 12 University undergraduate residence halls. The Hunt was instituted 27 years ago by Chris Straus and his team of classmates as a fun post-exam diversion. Read more about the Hunt here.                                                 

*Last year's Scav Hunt (in 2013) was termed the 2014 University of Chicago Scavenger Hunt in order to avoid using the "unlucky" number 13in 2013.

A lot has changed since 1987, especially when it comes to the University of Chicago Scavenger Hunt—or Scav, for short. The brainchild of Christopher Straus (AB’88, MD’92) and a committee of several of his classmates, Scav has grown into a hallmark of UChicago tradition—displaying the zany, quirky, and (most importantly) fun-loving spirit of the school.

As Emeritus Judge Diane Kelly (AB’90) likes to point out, during the olden days of Scav there was no Internet, nothing as convenient and versatile as an iPhone, and no way to digitally film material. Participants had to plan ahead to complete items that required photography, because film development would take a substantial amount of time. “There have been certain topological changes since then,” Kelly explained.

Kelly was one of the co-founders of the Scavenger Hunt, and she actually met her husband James Cambias (AB’88) on account of Scav-related business: Cambias was Straus’s roommate in Hitchcock.

First on the list of sweet memories: the days of free ice cream! Back in the 1980s, every registered team received a free five-gallon tub of ice cream, redeemable from the C-Shop. Most people were participating for the ice cream social at the end of Scav, Kelly admitted. “Originally, Snell and Hitchcock fielded separate teams to get more ice cream,” Kelly said.

The Scavenger Hunt lists have changed as well. There were 216 items on the original Scav Hunt list; this year’s list featured 318 items (including Scav Olympics). Though the actual number of items varies from year to year, the number has hovered around 300 for the past two decades. Straus, who has kept the lists from the first five Scavenger Hunts in his office, plans to donate the lists to the University Library someday.

A portion of the increase in list size can be attributed to the Showcase items, which were not included in early iterations of Scav. Showcase items are presented to the judges on Judgment Day before the regular items, and they tend to be larger in size and point value. “I really enjoyed the big [pop-up] books and musical items; they were some of my favorites,” Kelly said of this year’s Showcase submissions.

In the early years, everything Scav-related took place on Judgment Day. Now there are oodles of events spread out over the course of the weekend.

One of the featured events is Scav Olympics, a string of competitions which currently take place on the Saturday of Mother’s Day weekend. Introduced in 1996, Scav Olympics pits teams against each other in activities that require a minimal amount of athleticism and an appropriate amount of fun. A popular item from this year’s Scav Olympics was Pokémon-themed, with Olympians riding shopping carts while taking pictures of and throwing “Pokémon” balls (red styrofoam balls) at “Pokémon” (judges dressed up in costumes).

The Scav Road Trip, which spans a myriad of locations off-campus, is another key feature of Scav. Although the Road Trip was officially instituted in the second annual Scavenger Hunt, Scavvies adopted the tradition de facto during the first Scav Hunt when they had to obtain an item that was not available in Illinois. The item was a soda can with a five-cent deposit, the nearest of which could be obtained in Iowa. According to the Second Annual 2014 Scav rules, none of the item destinations exceeds a distance of 1,000 miles from campus—though some teams found themselves in Niagara Falls.

Some items also involve attending events held during the weekend, such as Pillowtown vs. Blanketsburg, a Scav-sanctioned pillow fight that occurred during this year’s Hunt. The battle was held in the Cloister Club of Ida Noyes and was entirely BYOB (bring your own blanket).  

“I think everything evolves to a certain extent,” Straus said of the expansion in Scav items.

He affirms that from the founding of Scav, there was always a policy to craft items that were unique and creative. “A list that’s very good has items that are purposefully ambiguous—they might not even be highly pointed, but it would test one’s ability to use multiple definitions. We felt very strongly that if you brought in the item in a way it was described, you should receive points for it,” Straus said.

 Mega teams started to develop a decade into the Hunt, according to Straus, and have since changed the competitive dynamic. Houses, even residence halls, have combined to better compete for points. BroStoMP, for example, features participants from four different residence halls (Broadview, Stony Island, I-House, and New Grad); the team finished third in this year’s competition. According to Kelly, there wasn’t always a trend to form larger teams. “Originally, it was house against house,” she said. “The groups were smaller, like Tufts vs. Shorey vs. Snell vs. Hitchcock.”

“I find mega teams intriguing,” said Straus. He admitted that if he wasn’t a judge, he would’ve likely participated in Scav as a member of a small team, with the decrease in membership having no bearing on the overall experience. “I’m someone who might have been part of a team of five or six,” said Straus.

Straus and Kelly are no longer involved in the production of the annual Scavenger Hunt list. Straus claims he is strictly available to answer questions and provide historical reference. Judge Kirsten Madsen (AB’13) says that the production of the item list happens over the course of several months, with a series of meetings, workshops, and Google+ sessions. “It sounds like a lot of work, but what it really means is that we get to experience the joy of Scav all year round,” Madsen said.

Now well-established in their respective fields—Straus is associate professor of radiology at the University of Chicago Medical Center, and Kelly is a professor of biology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst—both are looking forward to the 30th anniversary of the Scavenger Hunt in 2016. “My husband and I are certainly going to try and come out for the 30th Hunt in two years,” Kelly said.

Meanwhile, Straus hinted that past judges will be doing something “more particular” for the 30th anniversary. Given that these minds were behind the creation and sustenance of the University of Chicago’s Scavenger Hunt, at this point, who really knows what’s in store?