Initially, I was troubled by the task of having to “Find
My Place in the History of the University,” as I was unsure as to where
(and exactly how) to begin. I took into account a variety of suggested starting
points, such as beginning by finding someone from my hometown (or if not my
hometown, then perhaps a town demographically similar). However, I was concerned
that even if I pursued a number of different “search paths,” I
would not be able to find anyone quite like me. I thought, although I might
be able to find someone from my hometown, or someone who went to my high school,
or even someone who was involved in the same campus and/or non-campus organizations,
would holding any of these kinds of “life dimensions” in common
actually result in finding someone like me? I was interested in discovering
a person similar to me on the basis of values, interests, principles, and other
such personal qualities, qualities that more so reflect a similar way of being.
Following our class “field trip” to the Archives Research Center, I continued my research by accessing the online archival materials, beginning with the following website: HYPERLINK "http://web.library.uiuc.edu/ahx/slc/" http://web.library.uiuc.edu/ahx/slc/. After browsing the UI Student Collections link, I returned to the Student Life and Culture Archival Program homepage and investigated the link entitled New Projects in the Archives. I first encountered the UI Fraternity Chapter History Project. However, as I am not a member of the Greek system, I continued to scroll down the page until I reached the Oral History Project. Within the Oral History Project section, there was a box titled Meet Some of the Participants. I began “meeting the participants” by clicking on a member’s name and reading about his or her University of Illinois narrative. Many of the narratives I came across were not congruent to my own University story. A number of women spoke of their Sorority experiences, including Rush and dances. However, such experiences are far removed from my own, as I never participated in Rush and was never a Sorority member. After reading seven people’s narratives, I was beginning to worry that, again, I would not be able to find someone that I felt I could relate to, someone who presented a narrative more akin to my own. However, on the eighth participant entry, I discovered such a person, Mary Kay Hansen Peer, Class of 1934.
Although in reading about Mary Kay’s experiences at and perspectives on the University of Illinois I found many parallels to my own life experiences and views, our narratives as well differed in particular regards. The remainder of my essay aims to illuminate both the similarities and differences between our university (and life) (hi)stories. Mary Kay was born in a small farming community of Illinois1. The image of a small farming community sharply contrasts with the image of the metropolitan environment in which I was born. At 8:02 a.m. on April 28, 1982, I was born in St. Joseph’s hospital located in Chicago. Just before I turned three years old, my family and I moved to Elmhurst, a western suburb of Chicago. Despite our geographical agricultural/urban-suburban divide, Mary Kay and I are united in the fact that we are both only children.
However, I do not imagine that our childhood experiences as only children are at all comparable, as Mary Kay grew up in a house that also served as a boarding house for UI students. In an interview conducted on October 26, 2000, Mary Kay recounted how living in such a house, “was like growing up with eight brothers… I was only thirteen and I was just their little sister.” By contrast, not only was I my parents’ only child, but also I was practically the only child on our neighborhood block. When my parents, grandma, and I first moved to Elmhurst, many of the residents were senior citizens, and therefore there were not many children who lived nearby. I grew up in a house of adults. Consequently, it was initially difficult for me to interact with other children in daycare programs or at school.
While Mary Kay and I may have had remarkably dissimilar experiences as only children, our parents shared a similar dream for our future ambitions, a dream centering on education. As Mary Kay relays, “From the time I was born, my mother said, ‘you’re going to college.’ …My father and mother felt that education was the most important thing for me to learn.” Similarly, my parents, from the time I was a little girl to now, stressed the importance of attaining an academic education. Even as early as grade school, I knew I had to do my best in school. In high school, I enrolled in pre-ACT courses, working to increase my chances of earning a higher score so that I might be accepted into a reputable university.
Though I applied to a number of colleges and universities, my parents were particularly excited about my applying to the University of Illinois, as it was an excellent university and close to home. Even as I am about to earn my bachelor’s degree, my father encourages me to continue to pursue an academic path by attending graduate school. My dad’s first job was as a sign-hanger. He now works for the Chicago Transit Authority as a carpenter. Having worked as a manual laborer his entire life (and suffered physical consequences for it with back injuries, cuts, and burns), my father always tells me how he wants a different future for his daughter, “one that won’t break the back.”
Though I cannot compare Mary Kay’s or her parents’ financial dilemmas to mine or my parents’, as my family and I did not have to directly confront and endure the hardships of the Great Depression, based on Mary Kay’s personal statements, as well as her biographical data, it appears as though she and I (and our families) possess similar “economic philosophies.” Mary Kay worked not only during college, but also throughout high school. She began working as early as her freshman year in high school, typing people’s documents for ten cents a page. I also began working in high school but in my sophomore year because that’s when I turned sixteen and could work without having to first acquire a work permit. I worked at a local movie theatre as a concession and box office salesperson, making $5.15 per hour. I remained with the movie theatre job all throughout high school. At one point, I worked a restaurant position as a preparatory cook and bakery assistant concurrently with the cinema position.
As a University of Illinois undergraduate, Mary Kay worked in the Political Science Department as well as in the Dean of Women’s office. In my third year of attendance at the University of Illinois (as an undergraduate), I too started work as a student/University employee. I began tutoring Anthropology courses for the Office of Minority Student Affairs in October of 2002 and currently remain an OMSA tutor.
Mary Kay’s parents’ “economic philosophies” are perhaps exemplified by the following quotation: “One semester I didn’t make very good grades. My mother said, ‘Mary Katherine, you are capable of doing far better than that. From now on you are on your own. We no longer pay your tuition.’” My parents pay my tuition, just as Mary Kay’s parents did. However, my tuition and boarding is paid for, provided that I continue to put forth my best effort in all of my academic endeavors. If I were to perform poorly in school, my parents would perhaps, also like Mary Kay’s parents, no longer consider paying my tuition to be a wise investment.
Attending again to the particularities of the time period in which Mary Kay attended University, she states:…you know, she didn’t know how to type but she knit beautifully. I didn’t know how to knit. That summer I typed all of her term papers and she knit sweaters for me. You know, there was a give and take. I think this is one of the important things about the years of the Depression and those early years was the give and take between students, between house mothers, and I think you lose that in the massiveness of it today.
Though Mary Kay relates her and her fellow community member’s “give and take” mentality to their having had to experience life in the time of the Great Depression, the value placed on notions of reciprocity is what remains most prominent and poignant in my mind. I consider reciprocity to be one of my foundational and primary values. My family raised me to live my life according to the golden rule, “Treat others as you would like to be treated.” However, my parents and grandma have always encouraged a kind of “altruistic generosity,” if you will, and a basic kindness towards all fellow human beings. While such values perhaps sound, or have become, clichéd, I nevertheless do attempt to live my life according to such principles.
Although as previously discussed, my childhood living experience as an only child differed radically from Mary Kay’s, our university residency experiences appear to have held more in common. Mary Kay lived in her mother’s all female boarding house. In her biographical entry it states, “Her fellow house mates became life long friends with whom she continues to keep in touch.” As a freshman, I lived in the Florida Avenue Residence Halls. At the time, FAR consisted of two main buildings joined by a central hallway, lounge, and dining room area. On the left hand side of the building was Trelease hall, and on the right hand side was Oglesby (if facing the building from across the street at PAR). Only females were permitted to live in Trelease, while males had to live in Oglesby. (A girl could not even go to the “boy floors” unless accompanied by a male escort and vice versa). Though my roommate and I were at first strangers, we ended up becoming best friends, and the two of us later became best friends with another girl who lived down the hall. Like Mary Kay, I built lasting friendships with the girls I shared residency with. The good friends I made my freshman year have remained my good friends through today.
Also, I was yet again able to relate to Mary Kay, as I sympathized with her story of how her mother encouraged her to join a sorority but Mary Kay resisted the idea by telling her mom, “I can’t afford to belong to a sorority, I much prefer studying alone.” Though I was never pressured by my mother to join a sorority, I did feel pressure from some of my fellow students. People would say, “Everyone here is Greek.” However, the social opportunities, activities, and obligations of a sorority life never appealed to me. I am more of a solitary person and, as such, can appreciate Mary Kay’s preference for studying alone and etcetera.
I’d like to close my discussion about the convergences and divergences of mine and Mary Kay’s university and life narratives by reflecting on a statement Mary Kay made in the October 2000 interview: “…now young women should be very, very grateful that anything they want to be, they can be.” The idea of no limits, of no restrictions on the possibilities of what one can become in his or her lifetime, which resonates throughout Mary Kay’s declaration, is a belief that enables me to continue moving forward everyday of my life, a belief that provides me with hope and ambition to pursue and conquer my life aspirations.
1 All bibliographic information on Mary Kay Hansen Peer, as well as her personal commentary, was taken from the following University of Illinois archival website: HYPERLINK "http://web.library.uiuc.edu/ahx/slc/oralhist/oralhist1.html" http://web.library.uiuc.edu/ahx/slc/oralhist/oralhist1.html.