Student Life Then and Now

25 01 2011

The beginning of the spring semester two weeks ago breathed life back into MSU. Sidewalks on campus were occupied by bustling students, bookstores had lines out the door, and residence halls were once again full. The beginning of a semester also brings on the anxiety of having to dig into one’s pockets and bank accounts to fund their time at MSU; tuition, books, bus passes, sporting event tickets, and other expenses are a few examples. As a new student intern at the University Archives and Historical Collections, I began looking through books to not only familiarize myself with the history of MSU, but also to look for information for the On the Banks timeline. While going through a series of timelines in different books I began to wonder, did students in the earliest days of MSU history have to endure as much stress as I am going through with these new classes and paying for books and other expenses?  What did their average day look like compared to mine?

MSU currently has about 47,200 students with a little over half of them being female. There are numerous courses and majors to choose from which provides students with the ultimate freedom regarding their education. Students attend class beginning as early as 8:00am and can finish as late as 10:00pm. After classes, students flee back to their dorm rooms or off campus (where most students live), do their homework, go to work, and get ready for the next day. The weekends are full of fun as students attend on campus and off campus events.

Earlier life at MSU was a little different…

ca. 1900

In the first few decades of the university, from the 1850s to the 1870s students would occupy the boarding halls on campus, Saint’s Rest or College Hall. Remember, when the university was founded, only men attended. As many as four young men would occupy a room and two students shared a bed. A small wooden stove heated their room and each student would rent furniture. In their new homes students would study, argue with roommates, sleep, plot pranks, keep diaries, and write to friends back home. Eventually, when Williams hall was built in 1870, the university allowed for the admittance of women.

The students’ curriculum was planned out for them already. There was no stress of choosing a major or scheduling class. There were set courses of instruction to take for each year at the university, and it wasn’t until 1883 when students could choose three out of five studies. The set courses of instruction would range from arithmetic, English grammar, natural philosophy, vegetable physiology, inductive logic, political economy, and technology. Students would begin their day by attending chapel exercises at 5:30am which would be followed by breakfast at 6am. Students were divided up into three sections, and at this time the first section of students would engage in manual labor around campus which would last from 6:30-9:30am.

Meanwhile, classes for the other two sections would begin at 7am. Each class was about an hour long and would differ in length depending on the course. For example, praxis was only a three week course while botany was ten weeks. (Note: Courses would change from year to year).  At 12:30pm all classes would be finished, food would be provided and all students engaged in manual labor from 1:30-4:30pm. Women were to follow a little different course load. They would take classes such as cooking, sewing, calisthenics, and domestic art.

A lot has changed from the earlier days of MSU. I couldn’t even image having to wake up to attend church service as 5:30am or engage in manual labor after a long day of class! Not only that, but to have to share a bed with someone or not have any choice in what courses to take would not be fun. Needless to say, MSU students today shouldn’t take for granted their 10:20am classes!


History of Michigan Agricultural College, W.J. Beal




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