A Story and Personality Beneath the Panda Hat

By Hye-Jin Kim

“Panda hat kid just dropped the top scoop of ice cream off his cone, caught it, and put it on #likeaboss.”

“Panda hat kid talked to the tour group!”

“Beginning to question whether Midd’s mascot is the panther or panda hat kid.”

“I nominate Panda hat kid as Liebowitz’s replacement #VotePHK.”


I was initially unimpressed by the size and style of junior Ruben Guzman’s panda hat. It just seemed like any other fleece hat with a panda face. It seemed out of proportion to the attention he’s drawn on campus in the last couple weeks. Frankly, I had pictured a fluffy panda ski mask with large mitten paws as tassels, a full-on face mask disguise for the robber who eats shoots and leaves.

Sitting in Crossroads on a Friday afternoon with a whole sweet potato pie to share between us, Guzman ’16, however, did not fail to impress me with tales of personal significance behind his hat that went viral with social media app Yik Yak.

Though the panda hat was probably made in China, Guzman is a native of Sanger, California, a town he described as very different from Middlebury, which made adjusting to his first year of college difficult.

“You know how people fall back on certain things that are comfortable to them? For me, I fell back on hats and childhood,” he said. “Pokemon, Digimon, cute little animals. That was a way for me to cope with being uncomfortable. The hat became a natural way for me to do that.”

Though Guzman’s panda hat is hands-down his most famous hat, he has a collection of 10 other animal hats, including a chicken, an owl and a fox. He wears his panda hat the most often for pragmatic reasons.

“My panda hat is the best-made one. It’s the one in the best shape and protected me from the cold the best,” he said.

Guzman purchased the hat in San Francisco at a meet-up for prospective Georgetown University students.

“This is supposed to be Giants [baseball] fan-wear. After I bought the hat, the morning after, I got the acceptance letter from Middlebury. I was like, ‘Oh wow, it’s a sign!’

“Middlebury is so different from where I’m from. In my city, there are drive-by [shootings] that happen every week or so. Someone dies. And then people talk about that stuff. That was so normal to me. The openness. The whole showing vulnerability. The fact that a lot of people from where I’m from look very much like me: Hispanic.

“I came from that to Middlebury, where everything is calm,” he said. “There’s not a lot of craziness happening here. The craziness here is just academic, or somebody overdrank, and that wasn’t relatable to me. I don’t know what to tell you, I don’t know how to approach people, I don’t know how to understand why it is such a big deal. Why is it that getting a B on a test is a big deal? It’s just a B.

“I understand pain and suffering is, to people, relative. But, when you’re a first-year, you’re like, ‘People are so … I don’t understand that.’ That’s where the panda hat came in,” Guzman said.

“The hat is very representative of how I am. Very silly, very goofy, like life is so short. Middlebury is such a privileged place in good and bad ways. I feel like we all get caught up in the little bad stuff.” He smiles. “What’s the problem? Let’s just have some fun.”

Guzman, currently a First-Year Counselor in Battell, attributes his rise to Yik Yak fame to the first-years on his hall, Battell second floor center.

“The first person who showed the Yik Yaks to me was a first-year. I feel like Yik Yak is a big thing with the first-years. It was perfect timing. The incoming first-years came in, and, as an FYC, I was one of the first people they saw on campus and could attach some sort of significance to.”

“My nickname [as Panda Hat Kid] is chill. It’s definitely a thing,” he said, laughing. “[As for the Yik Yaks], it’s super hard to offend me. The closest one to being offensive was, ‘Panda hat kid makes me want to interbreed.’ I was cracking up. This is just hilarious!”

Guzman believes the campus’s infatuation with “Panda Hat Kid” along with his “five minutes of fame” will eventually die down.

“And I’m totally okay with that. As long as I’m perceived as someone that people feel comfortable around, that’s what really matters to me,” he said. “[As an FYC], whenever I see first-years, I like to ask them how they’re doing, and how they’re adapting to life at Midd. I feel like I’ve made a lot of connections with first-years who aren’t in my hall because of that.”

He tugged on the baseball tassels. “It’s only five minutes, and you should do the best you can with the five minutes you got.”