My First Year at Michigan
From 1941 to 2006, five women entered a changing university.
From the September, 2018 issue
ELAINE RENO WATSON: 1941
Elaine Reno graduated from Manchester High in 1939. Her family wanted her to go to U-M, but couldn't afford the tuition: $55 a semester. Michigan State Normal College in Ypsilanti--now EMU--was a more affordable $25 so she started there. But in her sophomore year, her Latin professor told her, "You don't belong here," and drove her to U-M to meet the chair of the English department. Awarded a scholarship, she transferred in the fall of 1941, working two jobs to help pay her way.
First impressions: I lived in the Cheever House, a women's residence on Madison St. We had many, many rules. We had to be home at lunch. We would all sing together and we would eat. Our house mother was very nice, but we had to be in at 9 p.m.
In the forties, this was mostly a men's school. But every one coming [to Michigan] out of high school was the best one in his or her class. My two roommates [would earn] Phi Beta Kappas.
I got my degree in English and I got a teaching degree. People in the lit school didn't think much of the ed courses. I learned how to pick up pencils and put them down again.
We wore short skirts and bobby socks, even with the snow all around us. Until the war started, we were very isolated in our little world.
On December 7, 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.
All of us were pretty ignorant! What's this little country doing off some little beach in the Pacific?
On Monday, I was in my English class and [news vendors] were shouting "War! War!" The professor talked about Keats the whole time.
As men went to war, women took more leadership roles on campus.
One of my roommates, Evelyn Phillips, became the first woman editor of the Michigan Daily. She was a smart cookie!
Afterward: Watson taught high school, married a former GI, and
raised three children. Now widowed, she's attended several reunions, but complains that recent ones were "dominated by the men who had been interested in football."
KITTIE BERGER MORELOCK: 1961
Born in Detroit, Berger moved to Ann Arbor at age twelve with her mother after her parents' divorce. She graduated from the former University High, and remembers being let out of class to watch presidential candidate John F. Kennedy leave by train after a campaign stop.
First impressions: My first year, I lived in Couzens Hall. It was a nurse's dorm, but they had an all-campus freshman wing on the 6th floor.
We had to be in on the weekdays at 11 and the housemother would stand there with a watch.
Guys could visit on Sunday. Doors had to be open, all four feet on the floor! Somebody would yell, "Man on the floor!" Two people who roomed together, they would run around without any clothes on, in shower hats. Somebody would have to throw towels on them [when a man showed up].
The men could be out late at night. I didn't think it was terribly unfair--if I didn't like my date, I could be home at 1 o'clock.
My roommate and a boyfriend and others once wanted to stay out all night. They slept at the graveyard near Couzens Hall [Forest Hill Cemetery]. I was supposed to say something [to cover for her] if there was a fire drill--everybody would be out in their rollers, and then they'd do bed checks.
Couples would make out on the hill of Palmer Field. There was a girl next door to me who was overprotected. A couple out there was having sex--or getting close to it. You could hear them. This woman said, "What is going on? What are they doing?"
We had one black girl on the floor. Some women were dating black men from Detroit. They would go to the Union and meet them to sit around and talk. A lot of them were from New York, well-off Jewish families. They were "question authority" people, and probably the beginning of the women's lib movement.
Politics: People were very excited about Kennedy. Kennedy--despite that old wealth--it seemed he really cared!
Academics: I found it much more difficult than University High. But I think [that was because] there was so much going on. It was almost like being in a wildlife reservation--I could graze and do what I wanted.
I had thought I would be a medical technologist. I found the sciences more difficult than the humanities because you had to do a lot of memorization of details. I had a zoology class my freshman year. [She took the final sick with the flu.] I was praying for a D so I could pass. I passed with a D+.
Afterward: Morelock graduated in English and went on for an MSW. She stayed in Ann Arbor, working primarily as a therapist, married, and divorced. She is now retired.
KATHY EDGREN: 1968
Raised in Grand Rapids, Edgren was one of "just a small number" of students from her high school admitted to U-M. She had never been to Ann Arbor until she started as a freshman.
First impressions: I remember moving into my dorm, Mosher-Jordan, turning on the radio. "Hey Jude" was playing. I remember thinking, "This is a great song!"
I felt like a kid in a candy store. [The first week] there were parties every night. The social scene just wowed me. There were panty raids. A guy came to my window and said, "What's your name?" We were in class together.
My high school was pretty WASPy. In my dorm, there were more African-Americans and a lot more Jews. I really liked the diversity.
Academics: There was this test--they called it "the raw carrot test." All freshmen had to take it. The reason they call it 'raw carrot' was that if you prefer raw carrots, you were a higher achiever than someone who liked cooked carrots. The feeling was that it was more challenging to eat raw carrots--all that crunching. When I met with my academic counselors, they probably reviewed that. I have a vague memory that I had a "high motivation."
Politics: You couldn't even walk to class without being inundated--people throwing flyers at you about protesting the [Vietnam] war and, later, the Black Action Movement [calling for increased African American enrollment]. I remember chants right near the UGLi: "Lockheed gets rich. GI's die."
I was sympathetic but not very involved. I was from a Republican and not very politically involved family.
Afterward: Edgren became politically active after college, partly because she lived for a time in Memphis, Tennessee, where she was "really forced to confront racism for the first time." Divorced with a child, she returned to Michigan to get an MSW, remarried, and served on the Ann Arbor City Council in the 1980s.
Before retiring from the U-M in 2012, she helped welcome incoming freshmen--and was struck to see their parents arrive with them, anxiously hovering. In her day, she says, "parents dropped you off and said goodbye. We were expected to be independent."
KELLY PARKINSON: 1987
Parkinson graduated from high school in Royal Oak in 1985. She started college at Oakland University, transferring two years later after becoming engaged to a U-M student.
First impressions: I was living in a house off campus. I had a couple of months to get myself oriented. When I started--Holy cow! It was a very, very different experience than Oakland.
[At Oakland] there were lots of moms, people coming back for retraining. I remember one day when someone said "I'm a granddad." I came here and discovered no age diversity. It rankled my sensibilities. [When] people talked about the workplace [she'd think] "This is stupid. You've never even been in the workplace!" I was working many hours [at a printing company].
Academics: It was not an easy transition. I failed to get one class and it threw my entire schedule upside down trying to find an alternate class that would fit.
Oakland still allowed you to turn in a handwritten paper. We weren't allowed to turn in handwritten papers, but they had computer labs all over the place. The thought that anyone could have their own computer ...
I was not a terrific math student. I spent a lot of time in [her statistics instructor's office] just listening to what other people thought. The funny thing is that on this guy's final exam, I caught a mistake. It was multiple choice, and I didn't see the right answer.
I told him--and he told me to shut up and sit down! Ten minutes later, he put up the [corrected] multiple choice question on the board.
Politics: People were protesting mouthwash being included in students' welcome basket. And I had to ask somebody--"What exactly is the problem with mouthwash?" I got my first Ann Arbor-like scolding--that a normal, healthy mouth doesn't need to be polluted with chemicals.
I had to ask questions! I seemed to be the only person not protesting ... But I guess it had an effect on me. As I keep up with former classmates from high school, cousins, aunts and uncles and Facebook, it is very clear that I am the outlier when it comes to my left-leaning, independent streak.
Afterward: Parkinson graduated with a BGS, married her college boyfriend, and later divorced. Remarried, she now lives in Hell, Michigan (though to her, the attraction is the Pinckney Recreation Area). She's now part-owner of Allegra, a marketing, mailing, and printing company.
BRITTNEY WILLIAMS: 2005
In September 2005, Jimmy Williams took a snapshot of his daughter Brittney in her dorm room. The former Detroit Lions player had driven them thirteen hours from Lincoln, Nebraska, where he was coaching at the university. "He had a whole laundry basket of all my stuff!" she recalls.
Her "very protective" father chose the Martha Cook Residence for her. It's women-only, prohibits men from spending the night, and observes old-fashioned traditions like Friday afternoon teas.
First impressions: My first semester it was really weird for me. Out of about 300 students [at Martha Cook], I was one of four black students.
They were very friendly, but I still felt out of place. As sweet as they were, a lot of them were very ignorant. I'm the oldest of six kids; every one of [the women she told that] asked if they were all from the same dad.
Social life: I was very involved in black culture, in the black church. [But unlike other black students she met] I wasn't a Bridge student. The friends I did make--most of them had already formed very deep bonds [during the summer program].
Academics: I think I was like a lot of people who were accepted into the university. They were the big fish in the little pond [in high school]. You're the star. In your freshman year, you get a sense that that's no longer the case. But [classes] weren't very difficult to me my first year. Later, it was harder.
Politics: The second semester of her freshman year, she joined other students gearing up to oppose Proposition 2, a state ballot initiative to ban affirmative action at Michigan universities. Despite their efforts, the initiative passed.
In and out of school: In 2007, lonely and depressed, she moved home briefly--by then her family was in Buffalo. She returned to Michigan, but her progress was slow, and in 2011 she moved home again to care for her mother. Her mother died in 2013 of early-onset Alzheimer's. She returned to Ann Arbor, worked for a year, and returned to school in 2015; she was twenty-seven.
I got all straight A's--well, one B. I was doing grief counseling. There's a different drive [when you've lost a parent].
Afterward: Williams earned a BA, added an MSW, and now works as a health care manager in Detroit. Despite, or perhaps because of, her extended undergrad years, she says, "I am very proud to be a U-M alum."
[Originally published in September, 2018.]
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