What Student Life Looked Like Before Instagram

During the 2015-2016 school year, Shepard Hall underwent major renovations as part of the Housing Master Plan. As students returned to campus, many gawked at the amenities the new Shepard Hall had to offer. The Shepard Engagement Center not only holds classroom space, but also houses a demonstration kitchen with high quality appliances, quiet study booths, and spinning egg chairs in the “Nest.” Despite the beautiful new facilities, the walls remained bare and white. The Engagement Center was definitely unique to Northwestern, but it was not yet uniquely Northwestern.

With a new school year starting, it was time to change that. An array of photographs depicting life at Northwestern from the 1910s through 1980s were enlarged and printed on canvases to introduce the past to the most contemporary space on campus. On November 8, after months of conversation and curation, Shepard Hall hosted a gallery opening for Shepard/1838 Chicago Residential Community and Allison Residential Community residents, complete with refreshments and a gallery walkthrough. While Northwestern students are never ones to miss out on free food, 1838 Chicago resident Lindsey Cooke had high hopes for the installation after attending several Shepard events, calling all of them “wonderful.” For her, it was a nice way to relax with friends and learn about Northwestern history in a comfortable setting. “I liked that it was an informal event that offered casual explanations of the different art pieces,” she said, adding, “It was easy to walk around with friends before or after to look at the pieces on our own as well. And of course the food was amazing.”

Students dig into food at the gallery opening.

Students dig into food at the gallery opening.

Cooke was not the only one who enjoyed the break from studying to do a different kind of learning mixed with some socializing. Leslie Bonilla, another 1838 Chicago resident, took advantage of the opportunity to get away from work because, “My brain was a little fried from trying to study, so I also really enjoyed being able to walk around, look at pictures and chat with friends.”

While standing in a circle of her neighbors, Bonilla could not help but compare her experience with that of the students pictured in the black and white images. The photographs showed women wearing long skirts, men dressed in suits, bikini style desks, and record players in the background. They shared a common theme of tradition and showcased students hanging out in their rooms, eating in the dining halls and painting the Rock – all things Northwestern students still do today, albeit with some notable differences compared to how daily life looked generations ago.

Pictures of Northwestern student life from years past line the walls.

Pictures of Northwestern student life from years past line the walls.

“The images on display were also surprisingly interesting,” Bonilla said. “I didn’t know what to expect, but it was really cool to see vintage clothing and technology in context, as well as see how, despite new advancements, student life hasn’t really changed.”

University Archivist for the Black Experience Charla Wilson thought that the opening gallery was “very successful” and a “good way to show off university archive images, reflect on the past, and let students know what life was like.” To identify the exhibit’s theme and photos, she and Assistant University Archivist Janet Olson collaborated with Rifka Cook(Allison Residential Community) and Melissa Foster (Shepard/1838 Chicago Residential Community), the Faculty-in-Residence in the neighborhood that includes Shepard. They met both at University Archives to browse collections of photos, posters, and ephemera and in Shepard to determine which items would best suit the residential context.

While people and spaces at Northwestern change, traces of the past can be found all over the University, from monuments and annual traditions to literal archive photos adorning the Shepard Hall Engagement Center. Affinity for Northwestern is about more than memories. It involves students feeling that they have become a part of something larger and enduring. Who knows? Maybe photos of you will decorate the newest residential spaces on campus decades from now.