Reflecting on 150 years of Student Life at Iowa State University

Photograph of white female student, long hair with glasses, close-up in a library office setting (cubicle & book shelves filled with books visible in the background).

Photograph courtesy of Cassandra.

This blog post was authored by Curation Services Student Writer Cassandra Anderson.

The newest exhibit to be featured at Special Collections and University Archives is arriving in just a few short days! Titled “We are ISU: Snapshots of Student Life” the exhibit will feature photos, clothing, scrapbooks, yearbooks, and other mementos from ISU students over the last 150 years. With the help of both the Preservation Lab and members of Special Collections and University Archives, I have photographed some cool parts of the collection, and even learned some interesting facts along the way. The exhibit is set to open March 13th, so when you have a chance, come visit the reading room to learn more about student life here at Iowa State!

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I had the chance to sit down with University Archivist Brad Kuennen and Assistant University Archivist Rachael Acheson, to learn a little more about the exhibit and what people might get to see. Brad and Rachael worked together as curators to create the exhibit. They planned the layout, selected the items, and wrote descriptions for both the physical and the online exhibits.

Are there any specific types of pieces included in the exhibit? What were the requirements for selecting pieces?

Brad: We wanted to select items from the University Archives that focused on the student experience. Since this is a look at 150 years of student life (Iowa State officially welcomed the first freshman class on March 17, 1869) this is intended to be a reflection on just some of the milestones that happened throughout the past 150 years. The window timeline will highlight 30-40 events over this entire span while the cases will reflect on six individual students highlighting some activities that they participated or events that were taking place on campus while they were here.

Rachael: We decided fairly early on that we wanted to sort of focus in on re-imagining the ISU experience of individual students from various eras, rather than pour all of our effort into constructing some broad, sweeping survey of the entire history of student life. And there were a couple of reasons for this. Firstly, “student life” isn’t really a singular thing, when you stop to think about it. Each student’s experience is going to be very different and influenced by different institutional milestones, depending on their interests, their identities, their level of involvement, the context of the era they grew up in, and so many other factors. And, secondly, focusing exclusively on some kind of broader narrative would necessarily attract attention away from the day-to-day, experiential aspects of living on campus at a given point in time. And that’s what we really wanted to highlight: student experience, not without context, but within it.

The hope, then, is that these “spotlight” students, encountered immediately after the timeline, will serve as a focal point for viewers. We hope that students of today can see something of themselves in the lives of these individuals, get a fuller sense of what it might have been like to go to school with them, and come away better able to reflect on their own contributions to the portion of ISU history that’s still being written.

When did SCUA officially open? Could you give me a brief history?

Brad: SCUA was officially established as the Special Collections Department in 1969. Prior to this, there was a much smaller Iowa State History collection in the Library that was the precursor to today’s University Archives. This Iowa State History collection was initiated by staff sometime around 1918 or 1919 in recognition of the 50th anniversary of the school’s opening. The project was spearheaded by Edgar Stanton until his death and then taken up by Louis Pammel. The collection was enlarged in the 1950s under Dorothy Kehlenbeck in the run-up to the Centennial anniversary of the school’s founding.

Rachael: Brad is more qualified to answer this question! I only started working here last year, so I’m still learning both the institutional and departmental histories. However, for this exhibit, Rachel Seale has put together a case on SCUA’s 50-year history. The idea behind including it in this exhibit is a nod to how we’ve been able to preserve the materials you see throughout the rest of the exhibit. In other words, how are we able to tell these kinds of stories?

Do any of the pieces included have interesting backgrounds?

Brad: One item on display is a laundry mailer. This large aluminum box was used by students to mail laundry home to parents for washing. In many cases this was cheaper than using the few laundry services in and around campus. We have a photo album from Fan-Chi Kung (RS 21/7/49), an international student from China. His story has a tragic ending as he died in an automobile accident while he was at Iowa State studying for his master’s degree. He is actually buried in the College Cemetery.

Rachael: I am also a fan of the laundry mailer. I sort of wish I’d had one of those when I was in college. I also really enjoy the photographs of classrooms and classroom technology that we picked out. I love how serious all the 1920s students look as they stare down their apples, learning how to judge them for a state fair. And I love the weirdness of the 1960s “reading machines.” I included this for no reason other than because one of the 1960s/’70s student spotlights was an English major and because I found them delightfully bizarre.

What is your favorite piece in this exhibit? Why?

Brad: My favorite pieces in the exhibit are the early photographs of campus and trying to imagine what it must have been like to arrive on campus as a student for the first time. One of the cases has an image from the 1890s of Old Main that gives some clue as to how remote campus was. I often explain to students that in its early years, Iowa State was in many ways like Hogwarts in the Harry Potter series, except on the plains of Iowa and with a little less magic.

 Rachael: That’s a hard one. I’m torn between Loris Foster’s World War II-era scrapbook, because she documented her residential and social life in such painstaking detail, and our photos of the Vietnam War protests. I’m interested in student activism, and these capture both a lot of high tension and also many diverse parts of campus coming together on a single issue.

Brad and Rachael worked with many different departments here at the library to make this exhibit happen. As curators, they worked together to pick out the material that you will see in the exhibit, figure out where it will go in each case, write the accompanying labels, and essentially function as the storytellers. Thank you to Rachael and Brad for helping me with this blog post, and thank you to everyone involved in creating such an interesting exhibit!

The reading room hours are M-F from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm, so once the exhibit is up and running, come see us on the fourth floor of Parks Library. If you are interested in learning more about student life at Iowa State University, Douglas Biggs will be giving a lecture at the MU on March 13th, the same day the exhibit opens!  Don’t forget, if you can’t make it to us in person, there will be an online version of the exhibit as well, which you will be able to find the link to on our website,

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