Swarthmore Engineering Students Pull Elaborate April Fools Prank

The Engineering April Fools Prank is an annual tradition where engineering students at Swarthmore plan and execute an elaborate prank on the rest of the student body. In past years, this has included putting rubber ducks all around Singer (2019), creating mini bell towers all around campus that announced random messages every fifteen minutes (2022), and putting a fake dormitory on Mertz Lawn (2015). 

The leader of the prank this year was Josh Vandervelde ’23, an engineering major and math minor. Vandervelde has helped organize the April Fools prank for the past two years and has been involved in its execution since his freshman year. 

“I knew about the prank generally when I came in as a freshman. I had heard that Swarthmore students had done some extreme, not quite malicious, but out-there pranks, especially in the 70s and the 90s,” Vandervelde explained.

Vandervelde also revealed the storied origins of the annual pranks. 

“It’s been going on for well over half a century. It has been a continuous and expected, albeit somewhat mysterious, yearly prank … The earliest prank that I’ve heard came from the 1970s — it’s more of a myth and/or legend at this point that the Swarthmore engineers buttered the SEPTA train tracks when the rival football team arrived for the big game and they slid down the tracks for like a quarter mile,” he said. 

Due to the annual prank’s legendary reputation, Vandervelde reached out in freshman year to get involved in executing it. By his junior year, Vandervelde had become one of its leading organizers.

This year, planning began with two meetings around the beginning of February.

“I just decided that we would have two meetings, one to talk about ideas and get people’s minds moving about the prank. And then a second meeting, two or three weeks later, to actually decide on a topic and to commit to a plan,” Vandervelde explained. 

To decide on the final prank, the team took a vote from every member.

“We try to run Swarthmore engineering as a democracy. So, we have a voting system to make sure that everyone’s voices are heard,” Vandervelde explained. “Everyone proposes an idea and then we vote.”

The idea for this year was inspired by the appearance of the new Dining Center.

“It has been said many times, at least among students I know as well as students I’ve heard from, that the new dining center looks like an airport … And so making it an actual airport seemed very appropriate for the opening of the new Dining Center.”

Vandervelde also arranged the organizational structure for the prank. 

“This year, I split tasks up among five organizational people. I myself was project manager as well as a build leader. We had two other build leaders, as well as a social media kind of person who took videos and documented the build. And then one logistics assistant. So that was five for the core team.”

Vandervelde acknowledged the contributions of the Dining Center faculty and staff. 

“I want to give my most sincere gratitude toward the dining facilities and the management facilities, the Workbox people, for helping put this together.”

Each person played a key role in the project, which had multiple parts.

“We had two or three main objectives. The first was a gigantic plane, which would have been on the first floor of the new Dining Center and be about 40 feet long, proportional to a real-life private jet. The second was to hang a bunch of small planes from the ceiling, and the third was making the Dining Center resemble an airport. So having all the signs up having bag tags. We were going to do a TSA check. Little things like that.”

Vandervelde explained that “the [work all-nighter] technically started at about 3 p.m. in the afternoon. That’s when we, on that night [March 30], started building.”

In an interview with The Phoenix, Bonji Onuma ’26 explained his work during that time. 

“My work included gluing cardboard, mostly just assembling things, assembling the planes [during the afternoon and evening],” he explained. “Then the night of consisted mostly of moving heavy steel beams and big wings.”

The real work, however, started around 10 p.m., which was when the team moved the mainframe of the plane down to the Dining Center. 

“At maybe midnight, most people were in the Dining Center to put up signs and make the dining hall look like an airport. At about two am a lot of people took off and then for the rest of the night it was five people who stayed, myself included.”

Onuma, who worked all night, commented that they had already “walked 15,000 steps by 7 a.m. according to [his] iPhone health app.”

However, after pulling an all-nighter, they were forced to undo some of their work at 6:30 in the morning. 

Vandervelde concluded, “At about 6:30, among the facilities that joined us and amongst ourselves, we decided that we were too far behind schedule to have the big plane up for when the day started for the dining facilities, which is about 7 a.m. By that time they needed the first floor ready and prepped for the day for students coming in for breakfast. And so it was a hard decision but we decided to scrap the big plane. Over the next hour [we completely took it down].”

Vandervelde was careful to emphasize all of their successes. 

“The prank is always fun in terms of building something but the main goal is always to unite the student body, to unite all the engineers, and to do something fun and ridiculous and absurd together. And in that sense, we very much achieved our goal,” he underscored.

Vandervelde also explained the prank’s importance as a bonding moment for freshmen. 

“I don’t want them to remember the prank as a physical thing that failed but rather as an event that brought them together,” he stated.

Onuma explained he felt closer to other freshmen after the prank. He, and a few other freshmen, after working all night on the prank, felt that walking to their class together was a surreal experience. 

“It was a bonding moment,” he explained, although he admitted he did end up napping in class. 

In an interview with The Phoenix, Marlea Martens ’26 explained her roommate’s involvement in the prank.

“My roommate is an engineering major, and she’s been disappearing for days on end with no explanation until the day [of the prank] that I went to Sharples,” Martens said. “I felt very proud of my roommate, even though she looked like she was on her last leg.”

Martens did say she wondered about the presence of the big plane when walking into the Dining Hall.

“Where’s the big plane?” she asked. “I wish that the 40-foot airplane was there.”

When asked if he had any ideas for next year, Onuma said: “I can’t tell you that. It’s a secret.” Look out for what the engineering students have planned for next April Fools.

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