GVSU History

Student Life at Grand Valley

"Nothing but cornfields," remembers Diane Paton, Grand Valley Class of 1967. "Registration was in a garage on Lake Michigan Drive," she continued in a 2009 Video History Project interview. "My parents didn't know what was going on. I was the first in my immediate and in my extended family to go to college." Paton, then Diane Hatch (her husband Don Paton also was part of the pioneer freshman class at the new college) was the first student to be accepted and enrolled at Grand Valley.

"Mud is the word," echoed Nancee Westcott Miller, Class of '68, who went on to a career at Grand Valley, retiring as Director of Alumni Relations in 2002. "It was being constructed as we were moving in."

Both women describe student life in the early days of Grand Valley State College as a self-starting effort. The administration organized a party to welcome new students, remembered Paton, "a hootenanny." Students organized powderpuff football, played cards, participated in intercollegiate games. "We listened to a lot of records," said Miller, "Simon and Garfunkel and Dave Brubeck. But we had a lot of fun, most of it legal."

Most early students remember informally organized parties on the south end of campus called "Grassers" (all adamantly deny any connection with drugs — "'Grass' hadn't been invented yet," laughed Miller). Others reminisce about adventures in the construction sites that dominated the campus, particularly the utility tunnels that connected the north and south.

To view clips from interviews with Miller and Paton, check the main narrative of this history, Part One, Section IX "Let The Learning Begin" for Diane Paton, and Part Four, Section II  "A Time of Optimism and Experiment and Reform" for Nancee Miller.

Some early college events now sound remarkable — Arlo Guthrie singing the complete "Alice's Restaurant" to a crowd jammed into Seidman House; Joan Baez and her husband David Harris speaking in the Grand Traverse Room on the second floor of Lake Michigan Hall just before he was jailed for draft resistance.

The first dormitory, Copeland House, was opened in 1966 along with Campus View Apartments, so only a handful of early students lived on campus. But most were involved with the process of establishing traditions that would be familiar to Grand Valley students today. Although freshmen are no longer required to wear beanies (an indignity imposed on the next class in 1964 by the pioneer class), students picked the name for athletic teams that would endure to the current day, the Lakers. They chose the school colors, organized student government (the United Collegiate Organization charter was adopted May 13, 1964) and established student media. Some traditions have deservedly faded away: in 1965 four students were fined and two suspended in Grand Valley's first 'panty raid'; in 1971 students protested the beauty contest portion of the annual Winter Carnival established in 1966 (a male student demanded to be a contestant) and it was discontinued.

Freshmen students

Freshmen students in the early days of Grand Valley wore beanies to their first classes in deference to their elders.

But students took seriously many responsibilities, including their own newspaper. The first issue of The Keystone was published on November 22, 1963, the same day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. It was succeeded by The Valley View in 1966. By the following year the student assembly had its first disagreement with the administration when a newspaper board was proposed by the GVSC Board of Control, establishing certain powers over content. The proposal was defeated in a 1967 student vote, and by 1968 a new newspaper, The Lanthorn, had replaced The Valley View. The issue of who controlled student media soon became a hotly debated topic on campus and off.

The ruckus stemmed from the newspaper's radical politics and racy language. For more of the story, which coincided with the arrival of the College's new president, Arend Donselaar Lubbers, see the main narrative of this history, Section Two, Part IV "The Arrival".

The politics of the newspaper was a reflection of the increasing involvement of students in the U.S. and around the world in issues far more serious than freshmen beanies and panty raids: the fight for civil rights in America and the escalating war in Vietnam. Demonstrations, moratoriums, and debates filled the campus (see the main narrative Section Two, Part IV linked above). Programs were organized to increase the number of black students enrolled, and speakers such as James Meredith, the first black person to attend the University of Mississippi, humorist and activist Dick Gregory, and Charles Evers, brother of slain civil rights figure Medgar Evers, were invited to speak on campus.

In 1972, the Black Coalition student group organized the first Black Culture Week, and the following year Grand Valley held its first tribute to Martin Luther King on the anniversary of his birth. That tradition continues to this day at Grand Valley, for more information check the web page of the Office of Multicultural Affairs. By 1977, Bert Price had been appointed Assistant to the President for Minority Affairs, a position that has evolved into today's administrative division led by Dr. Jeanne Arnold, Vice President for Inclusion and Equity.

The 1970s were a demanding period for the young college, and the student body was deeply involved in the academic innovations that marked the period (described in the main narrative, Section Three, Part I."The Cluster Concept"). In 1972, the position of women at the college began to be examined critically, and the college's first Gay Alliance was organized. It wasn't until the spring of 1975, however, that the Board of Control eliminated the last vestige of "in loco parentis," the doctrine that encouraged colleges to assume a parental role for students, when they abolished the requirement that freshmen live in residence halls. The worry that dorm occupancy would drop was proved premature the next fall when all spaces were filled.

Social fraternities made their first appearance on campus in the 1967-68 academic year, and in April 1968 the Board of Control authorized two chapters, Phi Beta Sigma and Lambda Chi. In December 1968, three sororities were approved, Theta Tau, Chi Kappa Sigma, and Phi Delta, plus another fraternity, Tau Psi Rho. By the time of Grand Valley's 50th anniversary in 2010, there were 23 Greek letter organizations on campus, with nearly a thousand members.

In 1968, another new idea about student life began to emerge — live somewhere else. Vice President George Potter, a native of England, arranged for Grand Valley juniors to spend a year at the University of Lancaster in the northern part of that country. The first students participated in the 1969-70 academic year, and in 1970 an Office of International Studies was established. In 1971 the first faculty-led study abroad program was offered in Klagenfurt, Austria. The OIS became the Global Education Institute in 1974, and in 1975 the first foreign university partnership was arranged in Krakow, Poland.

In 1999, the Barbara H. Padnos International Center was founded, and by the early 21st century, Grand Valley State University was regularly ranked in the top 10 among similar institutions in number of students participating in study abroad. In 2009, GVSU was eighth among the top 40 master's degree institutions, with 637 students abroad and 4,000 programs available, including faculty-led programs, independent study at partner institutions, and internships.

Students at the University of Lancaster

Grand Valley student, right, at the University of Lancaster in England, 1970-71. Note the similarity of the campus to bucolic Grand Valley.

Grand Valley also offers Alternative Breaks, a student organization that sends hundreds of Lakers around the country each year to volunteer over weekend, holiday, and spring breaks. Participants travel to work on issues such as community health, affordable housing, animal rights, youth, and poverty. In 2008, Grand Valley's Alternative Breaks program was named the best in the country at the national Break Away Conference.

Student life improved dramatically in 1973 with the opening of Kirkhof Center on the south campus. New space for the bookstore, a dining area, and offices for student activities served an increasing student enrollment. The Lanthorn was also evolving into an award-winning publication, named best biweekly college newspaper of the 1972-73 school year by the Michigan Collegiate Press Association. By 1980 it would win first-place honors from the Columbia Scholastic Press Association, and in 1983 it earned a "first-class" rating from the Associated Collegiate Press. In 1995, The Lanthorn became the first Michigan collegiate weekly newspaper to publish an online edition. The paper continued to take home collegiate newspaper honors, and in 2000 its name was changed to the Grand Valley Lanthorn. In 2005 it expanded to a twice-weekly newspaper.

The first student-operated radio station, WSRX-FM, went on the air in 1974, and has evolved over the years into both radio and television services run by students.

Many alumni from the 1970s also will remember a stellar line-up of concert productions in the Fieldhouse dome (an ill-fated architectural experiment). An article about Dome Productions appeared in the Winter 2007 issue of Grand Valley Magazine.

The dome rocked until its collapse in 1980 with the sounds of Ike & Tina Turner, Muddy Waters, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, Dr. John, Santana, the Eagles, Leo Kottke, the Steve Miller Band, and many more.

Entertainment on campus was not just confined to the echoing dome. A host of speakers, artists and quieter performers took the more intimate stage at Louis Armstrong Theater in the Performing Arts Center that opened in 1971. Jazz great Herbie Hancock, string virtuosos John Hartford and John Prine, avant-garde dancer Meredith Monk, and cult icon Tom Waits all brought a thoughtful perspective to the campus (who can forget Waits reading the Lanthorn headline "Nuke the Dome…We're Sick of It" in his 1979 performance). Ralph Nader lectured on "The Energy Crisis" in Louis Armstrong in 1974, and Joseph Brodsky, considered the greatest living Russian poet of the time, read that same year in Lake Huron Hall.

Students also were participating in a number of activities in theatre, dance, music, and other artistic endeavors. More about arts on campus can be found in the Sidebar story in this section titled "Arts at Grand Valley."

Curtis Mayfield poster

View a gallery of event posters from Dome Productions.

But another form of campus recreation was beginning to emerge. Grand Valley's first varsity football team had taken the field in 1969, thanks to the support of the new president, Don Lubbers, and in 1978 the students staged the first Homecoming celebration, complete with a parade float of the doomed dome made of toilet paper. As Grand Valley teams began to see regional and national success, athletics began to play a more important role in student life (for more, see the Sidebar story in this section titled "The Sporty Side of Grand Valley.")

The 1980s were a difficult time for the country, and for all educational institutions, as the country slumped into recession (see main narrative, Part Four, Section I "Academy Follows Economy"). Grand Valley made a commitment to student life, however, with the appointment of Bob Stoll as coordinator of student activities in 1983 (in the tradition of many Grand Valley employees, he was still directing the Student Life Office in 2010, planning for the 50th Anniversary celebration). Stoll made a number of changes that would affect campus life for decades, including separating student programming and student government. The newly created programming board morphed into what became Spotlight Productions, which organizes music, comedy, and a variety of other entertainment events on campus.

The Grand Valley Fieldhouse reopened in 1982 with a concert by Willie Nelson, and again became a venue, along with Louis Armstrong Theatre, that drew both students and the general public to the Allendale campus. Concerts by stars including The Beach Boys, Chicago, Tanya Tucker, Black-Eyed Peas and Sheryl Crow have been big hits, along with comedy and other performances by Sinbad, Adam Sandler, Chris Rock and Carrot Top. Sandler drew an audience of 5800 in 1995, Spotlight's biggest crowd to that date.

By the first decade of the 21st century, Spotlight was programming the Fieldhouse Arena and the Grand River Room in the expanded Kirkhof Center with entertainers such as perennial favorite hypnotist Tom DeLuca, and events such as the annual Sibs & Kids weekend, which brings family members to the campus to join the student fun.

In the fall of 1982, there was another censorship flap on campus with the denial of college funds to show an X-rated film, "Inserts," starring Richard Dreyfuss. The Student Activities Office and Student Senate enlisted the aid of the ACLU, and a months-long legal discussion resulted in the film finally being shown on campus in April 1983 on the orders of the U.S. District Court.

President's Ball

In February 2010, President Thomas Haas and Marcia Haas welcomed a capacity crowd of more than 4000 to the President's Ball at DeVos Place.

In 1986 the annual formal President's Ball was initiated, attracting a crowd of 300. As it grew, the event was moved to Welsh Auditorium in Grand Rapids, then to the Eberhard Center, and finally to DeVos Place Convention Center.

In the early 1990s, concerns about multicultural representation in the student body and in the curriculum again surfaced, beginning with a sit-in of black students in the spring of 1990. A task force formed by President Lubbers and Provost Niemeyer was set up to study the matter. Over a bumpy few years, student and Greek organizations worked with the administration's office of minority affairs to raise awareness and involvement on campus. By 1993, the focus had broadened, and a visit by renowned activist Cesar Chavez helped establish the Hispanic and Latino Association. In 1999 Grand Valley marked the first campus celebration of National Coming Out Day, hosted by the student group Out-n-About. In February 2010, the Muslim Students Association presented a series of events on the Allendale campus for its first Islamic Awareness Week.

The expansion of Kirkhof Center in 2002 added greatly to the viability of student organizations. The Student Organization Center created a large collaborative space to foster interaction among registered student organizations, and by 2009 there were nearly 300 of them. In 2008, another expansion provided renovated dining space and more meeting areas in Kirkhof, along with offices for the student newspaper and radio and television stations, and space for three student services centers: the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transsexual Resource Center, the Women's Center, and the Office of Multicultural Affairs.

For a really in-depth look at Grand Valley's student life through the years, all past issues of student newspapers are now accessible online in the University archives. An extensive web site also covers all aspects of current Grand Valley student life.

To hear memories of Grand Valley student life, along with the campus life of faculty, staff, alumni, friends, parents, and grandparents, visit the Laker Lore section of this Anniversary web site. The interviews are part of the 2010-2011 celebration of Grand Valley's 50th year, recorded on each of the GVSU campuses, some in a formal studio setting, some over the phone, some more casually at events, in hallways, and in food courts. It's a snapshot of life on the Grand Valley campus at 50 years and growing.

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Cesar Chavez

Cesar Chavez, above right, spoke on the Grand Valley campus in 1993, his final speech before his unexpected death in April of that year. Also pictured is student Edward Cardenas, one of the founders of Grand Valley's Latino Student Union, who went on to serve in the office of Detroit mayor Dave Bing in 2009.

Page last modified May 16, 2018