The personal is historical

“Visions of U” chronicles fall semester 2004 through the eyes of 14 first-year students

Niels Strandskov

In 1970, students protesting the Vietnam War filled the space in front of Coffman Union. Their image is preserved in the east and west entryways to the building, in large black-and-white photographs that speak of a time when a generation heard the call and moved with a unity of purpose that seems alien to us today.

But 1970 was also a time of parties and midterms, crushes and homesickness. The college experience then, as today, was made up of a thousand little interactions, triumphs and defeats alike, in addition to the occasional momentous protest or anguished loss.

The photographs that document that everyday world of residence hall rooms and fraternity parties are mostly collecting dust in archives and shoeboxes, which makes the current Coffman Gallery exhibit, “Visions of U,” all the more intriguing.

“Visions of U” is a project of the Orientation and First-Year Programs office. University alumna Maggie Cosgrove, the coordinator of first-year programs, led the project, which brought 14 first-year students together to visually record their experiences as they began college.

The project put cameras in the students’ hands and gave them themes to work around as well as a structured space to discuss their progress. Cosgrove said the goal of “Visions of U” was “to help first-year students share their experience.”

“The students have had fun and built confidence,” Cosgrove said. “It’s empowering to make their voices heard.”

Participant Renelle Tessmer said she feels the realization that “many of the other project members were experiencing the same emotions and challenges” benefited her own development.

For Adrian Suncar, permanently documenting his first year was the project’s chief attraction.

Cosgrove explained that after a representative group of students was selected from a pool of applicants, she met with them and instructed them to spend their first 10 days on campus shooting anything they found significant.

Later, she gave the students several questions to answer, including “Who are you?” “How do others see you?” and “What is your future?” The images that answer these questions will hopefully show “a snapshot of real life,” Cosgrove said.

While Tessmer’s hope that future first-year students will be informed that while “it is a big transition to come to the University, they are not alone,” is laudable, that might not be the most important outcome of the project.

We should also look forward to the opportunity that future viewers will have to learn about this specific place and time. Beyond the big events that make headlines and the trends that historians evaluate, there is the personal world, where each of us has the power to shape our lives and connect with others. A visual document of that reality will be as valuable as any mass-market history or celebrity memoir.