Starting with the 1865 Act of Incorporation that brought the Worcester County Free Institute of Industrial Science into being, the exhibit brings together documents, photographs, and historical objects that belonged to students. The artifacts on display range from a diploma from the first graduating class to the fraternity paddle and slide rule used by President Phil Ryan ’65.
Conlin, a Humanities and Arts major concentrating in American Studies, wanted to use the skills she was learning in history and literature courses to study the student culture that developed at WPI from 1865 to 1965. “There’s so much more than the beanies and Tech Bibles we see at Homecoming,” she says. “I saw there were traditions that had been lost, and I wanted to give them life again.”
As part of her MQP research, Conlin spent hundreds of hours combing through the university archives to uncover those stories and select the right objects to tell them. Some WPI legends became real to her through that daily contact. “We found Robert Sanford Riley’s degree from 1869. More than just names on buildings, these are real people who embodied the WPI lifestyle and carried it forward for others.”
Conlin’s MQP advisors, professors Kent Ljunquist and James Hanlan, guided her to deepen the research through a broader historical analysis of campus life at other colleges, and by connecting those trends to social change nationwide. “In the early years of American higher education,” she writes in her project summary, “students were looked at as being merely recipients of academic content. Professors kept students at arm’s length, and demanded rigorous dedication of students to their studies.” The exhibit includes a timeline to anchor the student experience at WPI to real-world events—such as two World Wars and the Great Depression—that shaped their lives.
Most amazing to Conlin were the ways that studious WPI classmates let off steam. “Some of the traditions were pretty wild,” she relates. “A lot of the Freshman-Sophomore competitions turned into huge brawls.” Her favorite item in the exhibit is the golden clock hands that were stolen by students who scaled Boynton Tower by night. Missing for almost a century, the clock hands were returned to WPI through a deathbed wish of one of the thieves.
A naval ROTC cadet, Conlin will begin her active service with pilot training after graduation. She says that through her moves, she keeps her own WPI beanie hanging on her wall, so she doesn’t lose it. She likes to imagine that perhaps in the year 2064, the belongings of an ordinary WPI student like Sarah Conlin ’14 might become content for a 50-year retrospective. “There’s so much of WPI’s past that’s carried forward. I wanted to take that and give it back to the WPI students of today. I feel it brings WPI back to a special place for all of us.”
Conlin, Ryan, and others will speak at the reception to be held April 10, 2014, from 4:30 p.m. to 6:00 p.m., on Level G of Gordon Library in the Gladwin Gallery and Fellman Dickens Reading Room. The exhibition will be on display through Alumni Weekend in June for all to enjoy.