Campus Features

Documenting the Illinois student story

Arissa Moore
12/3/2013  8:00 am

College is an experience that goes far beyond earning a degree. While academics lie at the core, discovery and learning are also found in the unique campus culture of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. How has student life at Illinois evolved since the University’s founding in 1867? What impact did historical occurrences like World War II have on the daily activities of students and faculty? What social movements and organizations thrived on campus in the 60s?  What were students doing for recreation in the 70s and 80s? These are details and memories that students carry with them after graduation, but they are often lost to future generations.  

Stewart S. Howe, a 1928 Illinois graduate, understood the importance of documenting those experiences. As an avid collector of sorority and fraternity correspondence and artifacts, he willed his personal collection to the University of Illinois Archives. Over decades, this collection has been expanded to become the Student Life and Culture Archival Program, which collects and preserves the student life history of Illinois and opens it to the public. The collection includes photographs, audio and video recordings, publications and other memorabilia relating to all aspects of student life. From dolls to canes and even a stuffed animal or two, this archive can never be accused of being stodgy or boring. And, even beyond Illinois, the artifacts and chapter histories of nationally recognized Greek letter organizations, Howe’s core interest and the bulk of his original collection, are still housed in the archive.

“Our oldest artifacts date back to the charter of the University in 1867,” says Ellen Swain, Archivist for Student Life and Culture. “We have the only endowed program of this kind in the country and for 50 years this program has only continued to grow.”  Some of the artifacts collected include alumni diaries and scrapbooks, oral histories, administrative papers, homecoming fliers and programs, Greek paddles, and yearbooks. Housed in the Archives Research Center at 1707 S. Orchard, just east of the President’s House, this program has been a great resource for genealogists, historians and even students interested in what campus life was like in years past.

Swain says contributions from those who took part in this campus culture are really the key to maintaining this great map of the Illinois student experience. The archive is always looking for new records and items from student organizations, past or present. And the staff can also advise individuals and groups on the best ways to preserve and to protect their items for future generations.

“We’re always looking for items and information that fill in a little more of the whole University of Illinois student story,” says Swain.

The collection can be viewed until 5 pm Monday-Friday. For more information, you can contact Ellen Swain at (217) 244-4300 or by email at

Campus Features is provided by Public Affairs to showcase various endeavors by our diverse campus community.