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Student Life


Men relax in Merner Hall lounge, circa 1940s.

The Conservatory of Music initiated the May Music Festival in 1899, the first such annual festival in Iowa. From 1903 to 1963 the Chicago Symphony Orchestra appeared annually at the festival. More than 60 stars of the Metropolitan Opera Company, as well as other world-famous musical artists, have appeared on the stage of King Chapel. Originally only classical music was featured, but from 1970 the festival usually offered jazz as well. In 1998 the Music Festival became Music Mondays and now four concerts are scheduled in fall and spring.


Cornell students participated in the Civil War, with the college contributing approximately a third of the members of the three companies of soldiers, and part of a fourth, raised in Mount Vernon. One Cornell graduate, John Alexander Bonaparte Putman, is the only alumnus known to have fought for the Confederacy.

From the 1870s until 1898 male students participated in one hour of required daily military drill while women had physical education activities. The drill was led by officers, graduates of West Point, appointed to Cornell by the Army. Two cannons were shipped to the college and stored in a specially constructed armory in the chapel basement. During World War I students participated in training activities, including drilling with wooden guns and constructing a replica battle trench near where Armstrong Hall is today. By war’s end more than 700 stars were on the Cornell service flag dedicated in a Thanksgiving chapel service in 1918. Ten Cornellians died during the war, including one of the six Cornell women who had served as nurses.

Students at the turn of the 20th century.

Joe Fitch 58 climbed the greased pole and captured the flag, allowing freshmen to stop wearing their beanies.

During World War II the draft cut into the male enrollment at the college, which dropped from 322 in 194041 to only 60 in 1944-45. One-fourth of the 1,037 Cornellians who served in the war were still students when they entered military service. Once again, a service flag hung in King Chapel honoring the Cornellians (including approximately 75 women) in the war and memorializing the missing and the 34 dead.


Over time the candles, woodstoves, and straw mattresses that characterized life for the first students living in Old Sem during the college’s early days gave way to modern conveniences. Electricity first arrived on campus in 1898. In more recent years students have enjoyed the installation of telephones in each room in the residence halls and, in the past decade, internet connections and cable television. Another change that has come to Cornell residence halls is coeducational housing. In 1978, Merner and Pfeiffer became the first halls to be coed.

Student government was organized in 1919, and the various religious and cultural organizations consolidated into the Cornell Student Association in 1927. The first Homecoming took place in 1913; the first Parents Day in 1932. Believing strongly in faculty guidance, President Updegraff initiated the practice of assigning faculty advisors to students during his administration in the early 1920s.

In the early years the students and faculty dined in Old Sem. From 1885 to 1930 most students who took their meals on campus ate in Bowman Hall. After Pfeiffer Hall was opened in 1930, half the students were assigned to eat there while the other half continued to dine at Bowman. This arrangement continued until The Commons opened in January 1966. The Commons, the central gathering place for students, features large dining areas, a short-order counter, small private dining or meeting rooms, classrooms, a bookstore, a billiards room, and student mail boxes, all centered around a two-story atrium space for lectures, debates, and performances.

The original kiosk, made from the trunk of an oak tree taken out when building The Commons.

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