Altgeld’s dirt marked NIU’s initial semester

By Jill Flanagan

As NIU students return to classes this week, the university’s academic cycle begins once again. When the school first experienced this cycle in 1899, many things were different than they are today.

When NIU first opened in 1899, only 173 students were enrolled at the school. Almost 45 percent of these were 25 years old or older and had taught somewhere before deciding to complete their formal education.

Classes offered that first semester included History of Education, School Organization and Management, Latin, Arithmetic, and Civics. Students were required to obtain a certain amount of credits to graduate.

Since NIU was founded for the education of teachers, there were no separate majors or minors. Students would be required to demonstrate their teaching abilities many times during their college careers.

When students arrived at the school, some were disappointed with the appearance of the campus. Construction of Altgeld had not yet been completed and mounds of dirt were scattered around the building. During the first few days of classes, both professors and students were disturbed by the pounding and scraping of the constuction workers.

Finally, students and faculty were allowed to slip into a regular schedule. Classes were small and everyone knew each other.

John Cook, the first president of the university, was feared and respected by the students. He had a commanding presence and had no second thoughts about reprimanding either students or faculty for disobeying the rules.

NIU has grown during the last 92 years. Today, it’s possible that students will have more people in their math class than there were enrolled at the university during that first semester. Still, the reason behind attending the classes remains the same—to be educated for the future.