As SCSU celebrates 150 years, history department examines changes to student life on campus 


Saint Cloud State University (SCSU) turns 150 years old in 2019 (it was founded in 1869). 

Like all universities, SCSU has had to change with the times. As part of the school’s birthday celebration, historians in SCSU’s history department dug into the school’s archives in an effort to learn about some of those changes. They took particular effort to avoid what history Professor Rob Galler called ‘top down’ history.

Saint Cloud State University in the 1930s, along the banks of the mighty Mississippi River. Contributed photo

“We noticed how many prior works (of SCSU history) tended to be “top down” history written from the perspective of the university administrators focused on macro developments,” Galler wrote in an article in Crossings, a magazine published by the Stearns History Center.

Dr. Galler said that he and the other researchers were more interested in what was going on in the classrooms and dormitories than in what was going on in the president’s office.

“What were the students doing and thinking?” he wondered.

Kyle Imdieke, an SCSU graduate student in history, and a graduate assistant in the history department, set out to learn the answer to that question regarding students during the 1930s. Kyle said he learned that although there are a lot of differences between today’s SCSU students and the Depression-era students, there are also a lot of similarities.

“Like today, many students in the 1930s had to balance finances, social lives and schoolwork, although I think modern students may have a harder time with today’s much higher cost of education,” said Kyle, who grew up in Sauk Centre. “Like today, students enjoyed events where they could get together and socialize, such as sports events and dances. Finally, like today, many of the students back then had their first significant exposures to multicultural ideas and political issues during their college days.”

To come to an understanding of similarities and differences in the lives of today’s and 1930s students, Kyle studied one student in particular.

Marcus Erickson, who spent time at Saint Cloud Technical College and Saint Cloud Teachers College, was one of the students researched as part of the SCSU history project. Contributed photo

Marcus Erickson graduated from Saint Cloud Technical High School in 1932 and spent the next four years at what was then called Saint Cloud Teachers College. He was a busy young man and graduated from the college in 1936 with three majors. Kyle’s research about Marcus Erickson led him to a 1979 oral history of Erickson as well as to newspaper articles from the College Chronicle and St. Cloud Times and to entries in the college’s Talahi yearbooks. What Kyle’s research discovered was an energetic young man who, with the help of elders and generous public institutions, overcame the challenges of the 1930s Depression-era economy and lived a full and rich student life. 

“Aside from the Teachers College being close to home, Marcus was drawn to the school for several reasons,” Kyle wrote in a paper the he presented to the Stearns County Historical Society. “It boasted a notable Camera Kraft Club and a quality biology program that piqued his interests in photography and science. Having played French horn since his boyhood, he also relished the opportunity to play in the popular college band and orchestra. Finally, St. Cloud State’s affordability enabled Marcus to go to college at a time when his family could not pay for an expensive education. His finances were secured through $25 short-term private loans and work in New Deal programs, and Marcus was free to pursue his education and his passion for photography, taking photos for the Talahi yearbook while majoring in industrial technology, science, and mathematics.”

In addition to his musical, photographic, and academic activities Marcus joined the Student Council, the Blackfriars acting group, the Y.M.C.A., Kappa Delta Pi teachers’ fraternity, and the college’s first male fraternity, Al Sirat. He also became lead photographer for the Talahi, president of the Camera Kraft Club, and vice president and chairman of the Inter-Religious Council, according to Kyle.

Saint Cloud State’s Camera Kraft Club (Talahi), circa 1936

Marcus was able to maintain this busy academic and social life, thanks in part, to his part-time job with the New Deal program known as the NYA or National Youth Administration. Founded by the Roosevelt administration in 1935, the NYA employed 400,000 young people by 1937. 

The NYA had a particularly strong presence at the Saint Cloud Teachers College (SCSU) because the college’s president, George A. Selke, was also NYA’s first Minnesota state director, according to Kyle. 

“Under the guidance of President Selke and Chester B. Lund, a former Teachers College faculty member and Selke’s successor as Minnesota director, the National Youth Administration made significant contributions to Central Minnesota,” Kyle wrote. “The NYA provided several hundred young men and women between the ages of 16 and 25 with housing and otherwise difficult-to-find employment (while) learning trades such as sewing, welding, furniture manufacture, and horticulture. NYA workers also helped ease the effects of the Depression for local children by renovating one room rural schools and constructing a new one north of Freeport, leading Boy Scout camps, putting on free puppet shows and book readings at local libraries, and repairing broken toys for children’s Christmas presents. In one project, three girls worked with Kimball School Library staff to rebind, repair, and refile books and magazines that the school district could otherwise not afford to replace. At a cost to the school of only $42.05 for materials, the girls repaired over 500 books and 243 magazines while learning preservation skills and the Dewey decimal system.” 

Marcus Erickson was able to mostly work for the NYA without leaving campus. He worked under the direction of his biology professor George Friedrich. 

“Under his supervision, Marcus Erickson maintained the college industrial technology workshop, set up sound equipment for dances, taught model school and college students in Friedrich’s absence, and supervised the construction of nature trails in Minneapolis,” Kyle wrote. “Across the street from Selke Field, youth workers constructed the largest NYA project in the nation, a men’s dormitory housing 72 students.”

Founders of St. Cloud State University’s Al Sirat fraternity. Contributed photo

Marcus’ 35 cents an hour pay was invaluable to him, according to Kyle. He had a sort of an informal pay day lending arrangement.

“Part of his success (as a student) might have been an arrangement he described having with a banker who lived on his street who would loan Marcus $25 when he needed it,” Kyle said. “Marcus would pay him back $25.25 when he got his NYA check at the end of the month. That likely eased the pressure on him to work more and relieved some of the stress of worrying about his finances, so he could better focus on his studies.”

Marcus’s financial arrangements were particularly important because, in his freshman year, the Minnesota Legislature forced the Teachers College to start charging tuition. The cost of an education for a Minnesota resident went from zero to $10 a quarter. 

Charging tuition had a profound impact on the school. The short-term impact was that enrollment plummeted throughout the rest of the Depression years. The tuition charges were unmanageable for thousands of students that were less fortunate than Marcus Erickson. Toward the end of the decade enrollment eventually returned to previous levels and then began to increase. Kyle pointed out that there was a second, and longer lasting, consequence of the tuition charge. 

“The state Legislature forced the board to charge tuition for the first time, which incidentally allowed the Teachers College to do away with a required oath to teach in Minnesota in exchange for previously free tuition and to begin offering classes not directly related to teacher training,” he wrote. 

The elimination of the oath to teach, along with the four-year curriculum that was first offered in 1930, caused the variety of course offerings to begin to expand beyond that which was required for a teaching degree. 

So, the college was changing and so was the world during Marcus Erickson’s four years as a student. And, like today, even though SCSU was in a small and somewhat isolated Midwestern city, the changing world came knocking on the school’s doors, Kyle said.

The year before Marcus enrolled as a freshman the great American poet Carl Sandberg came to campus.

“When he came to campus on Dec. 4, 1931, Sandburg performed his Poems, Songs, Stories lecture-recital, in which he read passages from his biography of Abraham Lincoln, told stories about Lincoln, read some of his own poetry, and sang American folk songs while playing the guitar,” Kyle said.

Halfway through Marcus’ freshman year Maulana Shaukat Ali, a Muslim leader in India’s independence movement and a political ally of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, came to speak on campus. Students were hungry to hear about events around the world, and over a thousand students and community members came to hear his presentations. 

“His speeches focused on the political situation in British India, but he also answered several audience questions about his thoughts on topics such as the position of women within Islam, Jewish immigration to Palestine, and Soviet communism, which he emphatically condemned,” Kyle wrote.

In some ways the warm reception by the college of Maulana Shaukat Ali was a sign of the immense diversity that today’s SCSU students enjoy.

“SCSU is a much more diverse place than it used to be,” Kyle said by way of addressing the changes over the last 90 years. “While only a small handful of SCSU students were people of color in the 1930s, today nearly 20 percent of SCSU degree-seeking undergraduates are American students of color, and about 10 percent are international students. Finally, St. Cloud State Teachers College graduates in the 1930s could have a hard time finding a job in a tight job market for teachers, but today 95 percent of St. Cloud State graduates are employed in a field related to their degree.”

SCSU’s changing diversity reflects Minnesota’s changing diversity, and it signals that the school will continue to change with the times.