Unforeseen challenges marred Class of 1994 experience
Every year, campus lights up around the end of August as students return for the fall semester and freshmen step into the new realm that is UTD.
For the inaugural freshmen class of 1990, that same step was new and unfamiliar for everyone involved. Eighteen year olds roamed campus for the first time, many coming straight out of area high schools.
The first year was filled with challenges for the staff and students alike.
Karen Roberts, who came to study computer science, said those first days were difficult for the new class in a new environment, particularly in one that was unfamiliar to both the school and the students.
“That was hard, because nobody knew anybody,” she said. “The only thing that connected us was the fact that we were there only based on how well we had done in our high school careers up to that point.”
Roberts said the class also ran into problems with the faculty and their perception of her young classmates. Many were researchers that had never dealt with freshman students.
Roberts said there was one professor who taught freshman calculus and was condescending to the students. He went too fast for many of her classmates. This caused some of them to go to Collin College to make up the class, which led to judgement from some of their peers because they quit the course.
She said a lot of the members of the first class ended up leaving and going to other schools because they became frustrated with the lack of acceptance they felt both from professors and upperclassmen.
Not only did the administration have problems with close-minded professors, but it also had to deal with the unfamiliar process of awarding scholarships students out of high school.
“We had a problem with some of the students who thought ‘You’ve given me eight semesters of automatic, renewed scholarship,’ and nowhere in that contract did it mention anything about obligations about maintaining a GPA,” said Chris Parr, dean of undergraduate students in 1990. “So we had a small cadre that decided, ‘Well, we’ll take advantage of this and play video games for the semester,’ and essentially flunked out.”
Parr said nobody told those students if they flunked out then they were no longer considered part of the university and could no longer be given a scholarship.
Another problem with the faculty was the fact many of them were very old in comparison to their new, young pupils.
Vice Preident of Student Affairs Darrelene Rachavong, who was the Dean of Students and Assistant VP of Student Affairs, said she remembered one instance in particular that caused some confusion for the faculty when it came to dealing with young people.
“I don’t remember which faculty member said this,”
“but I remember, kind of early on, a professor called me and said ‘I kind of need some help with how to handle this situation in our class’” she said. “’In my classroom’, he said, ‘there are freshmen in the back of my class who are exhibiting courting behavior!’”
She said there were several problems that student affairs ran into with the advent of freshmen on campus. For example, Rachavong said she didn’t have anybody on her staff at the time that had any experience with housing. This forced them to build a residential life program from scratch that lasts to this day.
For Mary Walters, who was in charge of recreational sports at the time, the introduction of young didn’t create that big of a change.
“To be honest, the first year there wasn’t that great an impact,” she said. “There was only like a hundred (students), it was really small. A hundred kids didn’t really impact it at all as far as the rec sports world.”
Walters, who would later be named the school’s first athletic director, said back in ’90 the campus was very different from what it is today. The school was much more focused on commuters and night classes back then, she said, and during the middle of the day you could literally walk around campus and not see anybody.
“And then around six o’clock, boom, the parking lots would fill and there would be people walking around,” she said. “But it was like a wasteland before that.”
Roberts said this type of environment posed a problem for her young classmates as they searched for something to do around the campus.
“We used to joke that our social life was us walking down the halls together and figuring things out and trying to figure out where we were going and stuff between classes,” she said. “That, and we started to get really good at pool, because at the time the Student Union only had a single pool table and nothing else.”
Even though things like this were a detriment in Roberts’ eyes, she said she still saw many positives in her experience as one of the first freshmen at UTD.
One day they even managed to organize a shaving cream fight among the freshmen because they were a small enough group to plan it.
She also said despite many others not being encouraging, she met a handful of professors who were very encouraging to the new students.
Looking back on the way things were conducted, Parr reflected on what he wished the school had done better on in dealing with the universities’ first freshmen class.
“We had examples all throughout the state and throughout the country of well-run undergraduate programs, but we didn’t go investigate those,” he said.
He said that most of the campus failed to go and find out how an undergraduate program was actually run with students at that level.
Rachavong said even though the freshmen class may have not made a huge impact to the campus that first year, they ultimately opened the door for change as the school continued to grow.
“As far as immediate impact on how the way campus looked or the way it ran, no, we didn’t see that until those numbers grew,” she said.
Some of those changes included putting food service into the Student Union, the rise of athletics, and many of the student services around campus such as SUAAB
“I don’t want to minimize what upperclassmen and grad students do for the campus, I think we all know what the grad students do with the research and all that, but I think the freshmen and sophomores have grown this university,” Rachavong said. “I think those numbers have really caused us to get where we are today, population wise. I think they’ve had a huge impact on who we are today-huge.”