World War I brought new academic opportunities

Morgan Mawn, News Contributor

Brochures for Oregon State University frequently mention the Memorial Union, one of the most recognizable sights on campus, as well as the constantly growing engineering programs; however, neither of these aspects would exist today without the influence of World War I.

Oregon Agricultural College and its students at the time of the World War I era faced many challenges that would help to push the college in the right direction. The campus physically expanded with the addition of 24 buildings which were used to accommodate the new corps students while also adapting and developing new academic programs. The issues many students and faculty faced would help to spur the creation of important programs.

However, OAC wasn’t quite prepared for such a rapidly growing student population. An extra 2,000 corps students would be joining the school in the fall of 1918, prompting the construction of building such as a large barrack hall and Young Men’s Christian Association hall. Club houses, fraternities and private buildings would also come to be used to accommodate the large number of corps students. 

One of the most notable buildings built during this time period was the Memorial Union. Its construction was meant to honor the Oregon State students who lost their lives in World War 1 and the Spanish-American War.

“The community was very excited about all the building projects that extended from the 1910s through the 1920s because they saw them as significantly enhancing the campus, most notably the Memorial Union” Christopher McKnight Nichols, an OSU professor of history and director of the OSU Center for the Humanities, said via email.”  

Academically, OAC would also begin to change into the school we know it as today. According to the Oregon Secretary of State website, the U.S. War Department needed more officers and technical experts to support the war efforts in Europe. For this reason, a program called Students Army Training Corps was formed. The OAC and University of Oregon met the requirements to be a school hosting the program and began to take in large numbers of students to train and teach for the military. This turn of events is what began to make OAC switch the focus of the school from agriculture to technical and science degrees.

As large amounts of male students came to the OAC campus to explore degrees in technical fields, students attending the University of Oregon focused on degrees in the arts and sciences with some military specific courses. The University of Oregon campus also saw growth in the amount of women applying, many of which chose to enroll in special war courses to train as nurses or laboratory assistants. These special war courses were meant to train women to fill professional positions left empty by many men being sent to war.

 Furthermore, the SATC program would lead to the later development of what is now known as the Post 9/11 GI Bill during World War II. The SATC program was used to help provide an education that would train students to be useful in war efforts and started to build public interest to providing education for those involved in the military. The Post 9/11 GI Bill, or Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 as it was known when it was first made, offers to cover tuition and expense costs for those involved in the military attending college or trade school amongst many other benefits. As of the latest version of the bill, dependents of those involved in the military are also able to receive many of the same benefits. 

Jared McMullen, a second-year OSU student, receives benefits from the GI Bill due to his father’s background in the Air Force. Currently, he uses these benefits to help pay for his college tuition and other expenses.

“The GI Bill helps take away some of the stress from college,” McMullen said, “Not having to worry about a way to pay for school lets me focus more on other things.”

Despite the beneficial growth and development of the campus, people of the OAC community faced a difficult daily life during World War I.

“Students, faculty and staff were forced to swear loyalty oaths; during wartime free speech was limited, particularly through the Espionage and Sedition Acts, mail was searched and hyper-patriotic organizations rallied often across the state, quashing expressions of dissent through vigilante violence or official sanction and jail time,” Nichols said via email.

The Oregon Secretary of State website says that during the World War I period, military regulations often trumped university rules. This meant that faculty had little power to stop the breaches of rights.

During this period of tension for students and faculty of OSU, women continued to face societal pressures. While more women began to attend the school in order to aid in the war efforts, they were met with

discrimination once they arrived.

“At the same time, if you wonder if they were offered all the opportunities that men were offered, the answer is that while the official rules said access to education was equal, the unwritten societal rules certainly encouraged women to pursue the more traditional fields,” Tiah Edmunson-Morton, an expert in special collections and archives, stated. 

One poster found in the Oregon State Archives from the World War I era says “Nothing so completely fits a young woman for these duties as a thorough course in home economics.”

Despite the traditional views and roles pushed towards women, Edmunson-Morton notes that these fields still held importance and weren’t to be looked down upon.

“Within those fields women studied business, agricultural and food chemistry, nutrition, etc. They learned about food preparation and then became Extension Agents. They learned about childhood development and then started kindergartens,” said Edmunson-Morton.

The work and education many women received during this time was still significant and put them in a place in which they could later push for more. The growth in female students attending the school as it made the switch to a technical and science focused school allowed many women to get a foot in the door for nontraditional majors.

Both Nichols and Edmunson-Morton explained that most drastic changes to the school occurred during and post World War II. However, World War I remains an important period for OSU. The physical development as the school expanded, academic growth into new fields and exposure of societal issues continue to impact those of the Oregon State University community today.

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