by Joe Giordano

Photos by John Eisele

published Aug. 26, 2019

A picture may be worth a thousand words. But sometimes, the stories and smiles of the people in the photo turn it into something singular — a tradition.

In the past 15 years, the C-S-U class photo has become almost as synonymous with Colorado State University as painting the “A” on the foothills overlooking Fort Collins.

Each year at CSU’s orientation for new students, Ram Welcome, thousands of first-year students gather to take part in a symphony of organized chaos that results in an iconic photograph that is shared on social media, purchased by parents, and gazed upon at the Lory Student Center.

The early years: 2004-2007

2004 C-S-U Group Photo

The very first C-S-U class photo in 2004.

The C-S-U class photo is intimately tied to Ram Welcome, which was hatched on a backyard porch in 2004, according to Jody Donovan, assistant vice president for student affairs.

Donovan, who has been part of Ram Welcome and the C-S-U class photo since the beginning, said the event was designed to celebrate the new academic year and build community among the first-year students at CSU.

“The idea of the photo was for students to mark their starting point at CSU,” Donovan said. “You are now a part of CSU.”

“The idea of the photo was for students to mark their starting point at CSU. You are now a part of CSU.’”

— Jody Donovan, assistant vice president for student affairs

Colorado State Group Photo 2005


Colorado State Group Photo 2006


Colorado State Group Photo 2007


In those early years, there were only 1,000 to 1,500 students in the photos, said John Eisele, a veteran CSU photographer who has shot nearly all of the class photos.

Eisele would position himself on the roof of CSU’s Campus Recreation Center facing north to create the image. “One of the big challenges is the unknown of doing a group shot of 1,000 of your closest friends,” he said.

John Eisele
John Eisele

“One of the big challenges is the unknown of doing a group shot of 1,000 of your closest friends.”

— John Eisele, CSU photographer

The formative years: 2008-2015

Colorado State Group Photo 2008

The C-S-U class photo in 2008.

By 2008, with the construction of the Indoor Practice Facility underway, Eisele said the photos were shot from the Intramural Fields.

Campus Recreation Center staff would paint C-S-U on the fields with guidance from Eisele and Keith Lopez, associate director of orientation and transition programs.

Then over a loudspeaker, Eisele would direct students to fill in the letters, while Lopez and Donovan were on the ground guiding them into position.

Lopez said a critical component to the success of the photo are the Ram Welcome Leaders, student volunteers who assist with herding first-year students into place for the photo. In the photos below you can see the Ram Welcome Leaders in the yellow T-shirts.

C-S-U 2013 photo
2013 C-S-U Group Photo

Before and after: First-year students prepare to take their photo at Ram Welcome in 2013.

Between 2008 and 2015 the size of the letters slowly grew. Eisele estimates that participation increased from 1,000 students in those early years to more than 4,000 during this time period.

“By 2013, you can see the letters were fatter,” Eisele said. “This was around the time that Ram Welcome had really grown.”

Eisele added that the 2015 photo is taken at a lower angle because of high winds that year. By then, Eisele was shooting the photo from a boom lift.

C-S-U class photos take between 2009-2015.

The stadium years: 2016-present

Colorado State Group Photo 2016

The C-S-U class photo in 2016, with construction of Canvas Stadium in the background.

By 2016, construction on Canvas Stadium was well underway. It would be the last year the class photo was taken at the Intramural Fields.

Eisele said he liked the new confines of Canvas Stadium. “As someone who is as afraid of heights as I am, it worked out better,” he explained.

Moving to Canvas Stadium added an extra level of excitement, which made for great pictures on social media.

Akankhya Ashavari was among the students in the 2017 photo, the first at Canvas Stadium. Ashavari, who works the Campus Information Desk in the Lory Student Center, sits across from her class photo.

“While I can’t see myself, I can still remember the first day I uploaded it on Instagram, and everyone was like, ‘Oh my god, it’s so pretty. It’s so cute,’” she said.

With the shoot now at Canvas Stadium where the outline of the letters cannot be painted on the field, the photo team has a new game plan for capturing the photo.

More than 6,000 students snake onto the field from the stands under the guidance of 300 Ram Welcome Leaders, some of whom stand on the 28 corners of the letters. Cones and string also help to form the shape of the letters.

As the students head onto the field, each residence hall is assigned a certain letter, which helps keep things organized.

“It’s exciting,” Lopez said. “Students know this is a class tradition, and they’re excited to be in a letter.”

“Students know this is a class tradition, and they’re are excited to be in a letter.”

— Keith Lopez, associate director of orientation and transition program

As Lopez explained, the C-S-U class photo continues to grow and evolve, but it’s still the same tradition.

“It’s a visual representation,” he said. “Every individual experience in the photo is part of the CSU story.”

This year’s photo is no exception.

2019 CSU Class Photo

The 2019 C-S-U class photo.