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#WeWereBC: Undergrads Relish Chance to Tell BC’s Story

Jenna Postiglione ’17 presenting her research
Jenna Postiglione ’17 presented her research this past spring to the Making History Public class. Postiglione and her classmates created the “#WeWereBC” exhibition on display in Stokes Hall. (Photo by Gary Wayne Gilbert)

By Sean Smith | Chronicle Editor

Published: Oct. 1, 2015

Boston College’s history has most often been the purview of established, experienced scholars and authors. But the latest exploration of BC’s past is a new exhibition in Stokes Hall that was researched, organized and curated by 14 undergraduats.

 “#WeWereBC” is the creation of students in last spring’s Making History Public class, a collaboration between the History Department and University Libraries. Students in the class decide on a general theme, select related topics and use materials in the BC archives for their research, with the assistance of University Libraries staff, to put together an exhibition.

Previous Making History Public projects were “Creating Boston Common,” “Revealing America’s History Through Comics,” “Books Around the World” and “Ordering the Unknown: The European Mapping Tradition from 1600-1860.” The spring 2015 class was taught by Institute for Advanced Jesuit Studies Assistant Director Seth Meehan, who earned his doctorate in history at BC and co-authored The Heights: An Illustrated History of Boston College, 1863-2013.

“#WeWereBC” includes displays on the evolution of Lower Campus, the Fulton Debating Society and the rules for faculty spelled out in 1864 by Prefect of Studies (later University President) Robert Fulton, SJ – one of which was that teachers could punish students “only for good reason.” Other highlighted areas include the experience of women at BC, 1960s student activism, and the campus response to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, who had spoken at the University’s centennial celebration in April of 1963.

Carroll School of Management junior Ellen Ubl acknowledges that at first she wasn’t sure how the class’ diverse ideas would come together into a coherent project. 

“It’s kind of challenging to reconcile topics like World War I’s effect on the school with the story of how BC wound up with the drained reservoir that is Lower Campus,” says Ubl, who researched the relationship of athletics to student life at BC in the early 20th century. “Then we formulated our arguments, and it became clear that universal themes ran through all the topics. Regardless of whether it was a world event or something happening on campus, all influenced BC in some aspect and helped bring the University towards what it is today.”

As their individual topics came into focus, Ubl and her fellow researchers found themselves fascinated by the insights into events and personalities that shaped BC’s development from humble beginnings in Boston’s South End to a major international university. 

Racquel MacDonald, a senior history major with a minor in philosophy, delved into one of BC’s signature literary achievements, the Lowell Humanities Series, which for nearly 60 years has brought distinguished writers, artists, performers and scholars – including Robert Frost, Margaret Mead, T.S. Eliot, e.e. cummings, Maya Angelou, Robert Penn Warren, Susan Sontag and Seamus Heaney – to speak on campus. The reason for its success, she discovered, was the zeal and dedication of series founder Francis J. Sweeney, SJ.

“Fr. Sweeney was able to bring renowned literary figures like Frost, Eliot and cummings to Boston College on multiple occasions within the first five years of his new academic venture,” says MacDonald, who read correspondence between Fr. Sweeney and these and other notable figures for her research. “His appreciation for these individuals and the kindness and generosity he extended to them was so visible in his letters. He truly wanted his students to develop a similar appreciation for the humanities and made it very clear that he wanted outstanding people to help instill such admiration among the student body. 

“Fr. Sweeney’s benevolent nature to his guests and pure dedication to preserving the humanities started a period of literary and academic prestige that was to be unrivaled in BC’s history.”

Daniel Latu, a senior political science major, studied the BC-Holy Cross football rivalry and its role in developing institutional pride and traditions at both schools. His project entailed more than reviewing game results: He looked at the origins of BC and Holy Cross, and how each school defined and pursued its mission. 

“I thought it was amazing how both schools were united in a mission to educate young Irish men of Boston with Jesuit principles, but how they both went about it in completely different fashions,” says Latu. “For instance, Holy Cross wound up in Worcester, while BC dug its roots into Boston. It was also interesting how the rivalry came mostly from interest outside of the Irish Catholic community, and how much the game was influenced by the early popularity of the sport.”  

Meehan was delighted at the students’ engagement with the subject matter, and the zeal and creativity they displayed. 

“The sessions we spent in Burns Library were particularly enjoyable,” says Meehan, who is grateful for the assistance of Libraries personnel Amy Braitsch, Justine Sundaram, Andrew Isidore, Shelley Barber, Kevin Tringale and Patrick Goncalves. “It was thrilling to look at key source documents, especially the original charter for Boston College. When I saw the students taking pictures of it with their cellphones, I knew this was going to work.”

The students say the experience deepened their appreciation for Boston College, while broadening their understanding of the various historical and cultural forces in its formation.

“I began looking at buildings on campus and our traditions differently,” says Ubl. “I’d walk out of Burns Library onto Linden Lane and see the iconic trees lining the main road as part of the Philomatheia Club’s influence on the campus. McElroy Commons was no longer the dining hall on the edge of the Dust Bowl but a tribute to our school’s founder Fr. John McElroy, SJ. I stood in the Rotunda and thought about how incredible it was that the astoundingly beautiful Gasson Hall existed before anything else on campus. 

“That was probably the BC fact that piqued my interest the most – that [University President Thomas Gasson, SJ] and the other Jesuits behind the move to Chestnut Hill put so much effort into that one building and were so focused on making it truly beautiful; that they knew their tiny school for Boston’s boys would one day become one of the most prestigious Jesuit universities in the world.”

“#WeWereBC” is on display through December in the History Department on the third floor of Stokes Hall South.