History lurks just under the surface at the University of Mary Washington. Every brick, every tree, every bench on Campus Walk could tell a story from the university’s 106-year history.
A group of UMW students hears echoes of those stories – and has found their place in them – thanks to an innovative history course.
Century America is a small, private, online course, taught by Professors Jeffrey McClurken from UMW and Ellen Holmes Pearson from the University of North Carolina Asheville, who instruct students from nine different public liberal arts colleges. The course, funded by the Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges (COPLAC) and the Teagle Foundation, invites each participating school to discover what life was like at their institution 100 years ago and to share those stories as part of a digital exhibition.
“I already loved Mary Washington history, but it has given me a greater appreciation for the school now that I have an understanding of its legacy and this whole long story that we’re now a part of,” said senior Candice Roland. “It’s amazing to see the transformation the college has gone through and the way it has responded to its times.”
Although the course is held online, Roland and fellow seniors Jack Hylan, Leah Tams and Julia Wood combed the special collections archives at UMW for old yearbooks, newsletters and academic catalogs to re-create a picture of student life a century ago. They even ventured as far as Richmond to look for hints about what students might have experienced.
At the start of World War I, the institution was known as the State Normal and Industrial School for Women. The school had only been open for a few years, but the all-female student body had already found its place in the Fredericksburg community and had discovered ways to support the war effort.
“What we found was really amazing,” said Tams, a history major. “The girls would go out into the community every weekend and help the neighboring farmers so that the local community could provide its own food. They made propaganda posters to support the war and they worked so hard donating money. They even adopted war orphans from Europe and cared for them. It’s amazing. I had no idea we were going to find all this.”
The UMW students’ digital history site will become part of the larger Century America project with stories from all nine participating schools.
“We’re not just writing a research paper that only two or three people may ever see,” Hylan said. “This is something the public can actually go to.”
When the project launches in May, the public will be able to explore stories like that of Dr. Bass, the first African-American physician in Fredericksburg who volunteered his service in World War I, or of the Knox family, who had a son serve overseas during the war and a husband die in the influenza epidemic.
“That has been one of the coolest parts of the project, to take these amazing stories that are hidden in the archives, in folders and stacked in all these places that no one really accesses, and being able to turn that into a story that’s engaging that people can learn from,” said Roland, a historic preservation and American studies major.
Throughout the semester, the 12 students in the class have met virtually twice a week to share their portions of the project and discuss digital history topics. McClurken and Pearson engage with the students on their blogs and by using #HIST1914 on Twitter.
“I’m not aware of any other course that brings together students from so many different schools to create a digital project together, especially one that provides both support and autonomy to build those projects,” said McClurken.
The students have spent so much time immersed in the project that they almost feel as if they know the students from a century ago. In fact, they trace UMW’s tradition of community service and civic engagement back to that dedicated group of students during World War I.
“I think it has formed how UMW is today,” said Wood, a history and geography double major.
The students hope that everyone who views the project and reads the stories will see themselves as part of that legacy of strength and service.
“We hope that people will look at our site, be intrigued by the stories and then come see these things for themselves,” Wood said.