Photo from www.wcupa.edu
It’s 1871: the Franco-Prussian War has ended, China remains under rule of the Qing Dynasty and America has played its first professional baseball game; Charles Dickens just died, Vladimir Lenin was just born and a small, private, state-aided school just became the West Chester Normal School. With just 130 students arriving on the first day, the change came in the wake of the ongoing process where Pennsylvania would become a champion for public education in the United States. This school would rebrand as West Chester State Teachers College in 1927, once they began to offer four-year degree programs and drop the “Teachers” speciality in 1960 with the introduction of Liberal Arts programs. Finally, on July 1, 1983, Pennsylvania would pass the State System of Higher Education bill, raising the status of the school and bringing with it a new moniker, West Chester University of Pennsylvania.
That is just an abridged example of the rich history which imbibes this center of education, but it’s stories like that which have come to the forefront in recent months for students, staff and alumni. This is because the year 2021 has dawned and with it it brings about the 150th anniversary of the college, the sesquicentennial. Although the university’s current remote state does not lend itself to this major temporal occasion, President Fiorentino as well as multiple school departments and student organizations are finding innovative ways to make this year a little more special.
The heart of this year’s virtual commemoration is the West Chester 150 website, a portal that links to a number of historic and interactive catalogs for both current students and alumni. For example, there you can see the West Chester Timeline, a highlight reel of every major development in the college’s history, from Frederick Douglass’ infamous final public address in 1895 to the inaugural Banana Day of 1996.
Further on there is a photo gallery with links to each of the university’s available social media accounts. On this page, the site is inviting any staff, students or 116,000-plus graduates to share both their experiences at West Chester as well as how it changed them as a person through the hashtag #WCU150.
Lastly, there is a media page that will reportedly be updated throughout the semester with a series of videos from notable individuals (executive staff and alumni) as well as historical records of various facets of WCU’s identity. For instance, the first in this series is a comprehensive history of music at the university, from the early days of 1871 piano and melodeon lessons to today’s Wells School of Music and the award-winning “Incomparable” Golden Rams Marching Band, which is over 300 members strong.
This is just the beginnings of what is meant to be a year-long celebration of history and achievement at West Chester. The university has also released a statement promising a series of more interactive festivities. These include a book that will be published containing an official comprehensive history of the last 150 years, a number of social media outreach events and the hopeful notion of more on-campus events for the Fall 2021 semester. This is an admittedly optimistic commitment, yet one that pairs with West Chester University’s recent promise to “return to more in-person, synchronous education for the Fall 2021 semester” in the wake of the revolutionary coronavirus vaccine, per President Fiorentino.
Regardless of what the future holds, today West Chester University boasts almost 18,000 students enrolled in any one of 213 undergraduate, master’s or doctoral programs, dozens of athletic groups and a renowned music program. The university was ranked by Forbes in 2019 as the 141st best public university in the country, and its alumni have gone on to do everything from winning World Series rings to working in the executive branch of the United States government. So now, as West Chester struggles to maintain its identity, one of the most reassuring activities can be to look back. As Frederick Douglass said, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress,” and this university is one that intends to progress for many years to come.
Matthew Shimkonis is a second-year History major with a minor in Journalism. MS925373@wcupa.edu