The SGA's oldest member is less than one foot tall and has traveled around the world. He's at every general body meeting but never speaks.
Ralph, a stuffed animal version of Testudo, goes home with different members of this university's Student Government Association each week — riding in their backpacks, sitting through lectures, meeting their friends and family, helping with homework and posing for pictures.
While the SGA is responsible for matters of concrete student governance, one of their most lighthearted traditions for years is to pass the toy among its members. The SGA member who has Ralph for the week is charged with documenting their activities together and, after delivering a presentation at the end of the weekly SGA meeting, choosing who deserves to be his next guardian.
SGA President AJ Pruitt said he's had Ralph three times during his time with the SGA, and though he said he "wasn't the best at taking pictures," he understood the meaning of being chosen to have the stuffed animal for a week. Ralph's acting guardian typically announces their choice for his next custodian along with an announcement on why the appointee deserves him, whether it's for a piece of legislation they've worked on or a positive influence they've had on the group.
Pruitt said he was given Ralph for his work on the proposed $34 Title IX student fee last year.
"I think it is just someone highlighting the work that you've been doing, your hard work and your effort. It's a great way to just bring the organization closer," said Pruitt, a senior economics and government and politics major. "A lot of times with student leadership — this isn't just SGA specific — but you don't always get all the credit that you want or deserve for some of the projects that you work on. … This is just a way, I think, to highlight the work of people, week to week, and let them know people are paying attention."
When he joined this university's SGA as a legislator his freshman year, Pruitt said Ralph's tradition was already well-established. There are photos that date back to the 2007-08 legislative session in the SGA office in Stamp Student Union's Student Involvement Suite of the members holding a similar stuffed turtle.
Rohini Nambiar, the SGA's health and wellness director and a junior public health science major, said she was "really confused" when she first encountered Ralph last year as a first-time legislator, but as the legislative session continued, she realized that "getting Ralph is such an honor."
"It's something that really motivates people in SGA," Nambiar said. "We do what we do for a lot of reasons, but it's really, really nice to get recognition, especially from someone that's your peer."
Jonathan Allen, SGA's speaker of the legislature, said the tradition also helped to send members home on a good note after their Wednesday night sessions.
"It's a nice way to end some of our really long, and sometimes contentious, meetings," said Allen, a junior government and politics major.
Apart from the pride of keeping him for a week, SGA members say watching the presentation of where their peers took Ralph helps them to learn about each other's background and hobbies. For example, Doron Tadmor, a sophomore studying international business and operations management and business analytics, took Ralph home last year to meet his parents. During winter break, Nambiar took Ralph to Israel, Germany, the Czech Republic and Greece. Allen said he once took Ralph to Cuba to pose for pictures with antique cars.
"To see and cherish what one person does in the week, you learn more about them," Nambiar said. "I always make it a point, especially with my committee members, to get to know … the nuances of their character, because when you make a personal connection with someone, and you keep that growing, they'll be so much more likely to be more invested in projects that you are also working on with them."
On Jan. 31, Nambiar passed Ralph to David Rekhtman, a freshman biochemistry major who works with her on the Health and Wellness Committee, for being willing to take charge when Nambiar requested help and proving to her that he was invested in SGA. Rekhtman showed pictures at the SGA's Feb. 7 meeting of Ralph working on organic chemistry homework with him, attending a committee meeting and sitting at Blaze Pizza with him and his girlfriend.
"You guys can decide who's third-wheeling," Rekhtman said. "I think Megan is."
Georgie Jones, the SGA's civic engagement director, said she had Ralph during Thanksgiving break last year, and Ralph accompanied Jones and her family when they fulfilled their annual tradition of setting up a meal for their local police station.
"The police department really loved it," said Jones, a senior government and politics major. "They were going to do one of the Mannequin Challenge videos, and they put him in it."
Nambiar said a tradition as simple as passing Ralph around helped keep her grounded in the midst of all the SGA's daily work.
"We're always really focused on what we do, and we're always very serious, and at the end of [meetings], it's really nice to take a break and be like, 'Okay, we are students,'" Nambiar said. "It's nice to know we can still have fun, and that everything we're doing — it is serious, but also, we're doing it for our campus."