Arts & Life, Features

The man behind ‘the sign’: Beyond the free hugs and high fives

All eyes were on Joshua Brennecke as he held a card stock paper near the University Student Union’s escalator in hopes of spreading joy to others on Thursday.

It was a normal day for the 31-year-old communications major.

As students rushed to their classes, they were greeted by a familiar face. All the encouragement and support Brennecke aimed to disperse was condensed into a sign that read “free hugs and high fives”.

02/16/23 - CSULB student Joshua Brennecke holding his sign up near the escalators to encourage students as they walk by.
02/16/23 - CSULB student Joshua Brennecke holding his sign up near the escalators to encourage students as they walk by. Photo credit: Tanisha Bucad

Brennecke became a part of studentseveryday lives on campus. He never misses a day during his free time.

“Trying to put myself in other people’s shoes, I just felt like bringing some positivity and smiling at someone,” he said. “The power of just smiling at someone when they’re having a bad day is really, really impactful.”

Brennecke started college in 2010 at Manhattanville College, New York where he studied Music Management then later transferred to Northeastern University.

Three years later, his failing grades halted his bachelor’s degree forcing him to move back home in 2013. He tried getting back up on his feet when he began taking community college courses after a year across California from San Diego to Berkeley.

But beyond his grades, what led him to drop out, was a past he struggled to escape from.

After his parents divorced, he said that he and his family suffered physical abuse at a young age under the hands of his stepfather.

At the age of 12, Brennecke started drinking due to the influence of his alcoholic parents. Entering high school, he was introduced to hard drugs. Since then, he struggled with sobriety.

Brennecke’s addiction escalated after the death of his grandfather, whom he regarded as a “major father figure.

“Within my deepest core feeling, I wanted my grandfather to be proud of me,” he said. “I just needed to keep going on and I needed to stay for him.”

He suffered from depression in 2015 and attempted suicide on the freeway.

2/16/23 - Brennecke hugging a student.
2/16/23 - CSULB student Joshua Brennecke is taken up on his offer for a free hug as he gives a fellow student a hug. Photo credit: Tanisha Bucad

A year later, Brennecke decided to build his life together. After he dropped out of college, his biological father helped him stay sober and he has been sober for 9 1/2 years from hard drugs and 6 1/2 years from alcohol.

He started working as a housing navigator in 2021 which helps homeless people recover from mental illness and addiction. On top of being a social worker, he began working with Insomniac after a year in May.

“I tried to deflect on guilt and shame from doing bad at school,” he said.

Brennecke was back on the path toward his bachelor’s degree when he transferred to Long Beach State in the Spring of 2022 after eight years of taking credits.

With a card stock paper and a marker, he became the “sign guy” whom the students on campus look forward to seeing every day.

A stranger's note given to Joshua Brennecke.
A note from a CSULB student was given to Joshua Brennecke showing their appreciation for him and what he does. Photo credit: Joshua Brennecke

“It’s really nice that he’s just this stranger who’s willing to give it [a hug] to anyone who’s in need,” said Zoe Wong, a first-year graphic design major. It puts a smile on my face when I see his sign because I think it’s really sweet.”

No matter where he was on campus, from walking to his class to standing near the USU’s escalator, he held the sign.

Brennecke aspired to be the students’ reason to smile on a bad day and find comfort somewhere in the brief interaction he offered.

But giving free hugs and high fives was not Brennecke’s initial plan.

I remember I was sat in the class and then he just comes in with this sign,” said Natasha Payne, a fourth-year communications major and a friend of Brennecke since August 2022. “We were all thinking and looking at him, and then he explained his sign and said it was to call for an action.”

Brennecke’s first sign was to advocate for Black Student Union and La F.U.E.R.Z.A Student Association.

He stood in different spots on campus such as near the Go Beach sign to stand for the student organizations’ rights.

Instead of using a megaphone, he chose a different approach: becoming the sign guy.

“I‘m not gonna just sit here quietly,” said Brennecke. “We should definitely let other students know what’s going on.”

The sign sparked discussions among passersby, but at the end of every conversation, he said he ought to have students take what they can get and apply it to their lives.

His eagerness to be the voice for the students on campus was where it all began and since then, he became a ray of sunshine.


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