Uni students change with the times, but drive remains the same

Note: Thank you to Priya Bhatt, Beth Geistlinger, and Siena Roberts for their contributions to this story.


In a school driven by the quirks and idiosyncrasies of each unique student, the school’s collective personality has morphed over the decades. It’s safe to say that Uni High has not stayed the same over time. When examining Uni student culture, there are some notable trends that can be traced back to the school’s opening in 1921.

Throughout history, the description of a “typical” Uni student has generally stayed the same.

Jeff Walkington, current Director, describes Uni students as “brainy, fun, eccentric, athletic, artistic, socially aware, compassionate, and outstanding.” Echoing that, Paul Marty, graduate of the class of 1989, describes Uni students of his time as “smart, hard-working, passionate.” Chris Butler, history teacher at Uni since 1979, says Uni students over time share one common trait: an interest in learning.

“The typical Uni student wants to become a better person, a better student,” says Sally Walker, head of the athletic department from 1983 to 2013. “They want to learn as much as they can, so you’re constantly being challenged to provide those things for them.”

This student drive has managed to stay present throughout Uni’s history.

The physical makeup of the school has changed over time, though. David Bauer, graduate of the class of 1952, remembers his class had 47 people, compared to the common 60-70 of today. Ben Leff, class of 2001 and current Uni teacher, says his class had 55 people. The current senior class has 69 students.

Richard Murphy, the music teacher of 34 years, says, “when I started here we barely had over 200 students, now we have over 300.” Murphy attributes this to the fact that the number of subbie applications has greatly increased over time. Additionally, as recently as the 1980s, Uni students were admitted based on a random draw of the top SSAT scores. This kind of selection process would lend itself to a different kind of student than the modern holistic process, which takes into account teacher recommendations, extracurriculars, and personal essays.

With an increasing number of students at Uni, though, it seems the school lost its tight-knit community.

“The bigger it gets, the harder it is to be tight-knit,” Butler says.

Irene Strohbeen, class of 1974, describes her class at Uni as inclusive. She said there were “no cliques, no jocks, no ‘mean girls.’ Everyone seemed to be equally part of the class.” Paul Marty, class of 1989, says “We were a very close knit group though — very supportive.”

Current senior Ellen Rispoli explains that now, “there are absolutely cliques. (…) I think there are absolutely people who like to be in the company of certain people, but not necessarily everyone.”

Elizabeth Singer, sophomore, adds, “I do find that all my friends are friends with each other and all the people I’m not friends with hang out with each other. (…) I think that’s because you can’t really be besties with 60 people.”

Similarly, subbie Kristine Wang sees groups of people in her class who generally stick together.

In 1981, senior Ned Watts wrote a senior column for the Gargoyle about his time at Uni. He took a class at Central High School and wrote about his experience there: “I’ve noticed something about the people at Central as I look around the classroom every morning: they speak to each other, but they don’t know each other. They act like they know each other, but most of them are really strangers. I haven’t been in a roomful of people who really aren’t quite on the same wavelength since I left Edison. (…) Nevertheless, the closeness that our school has should be valued.”

Uni students used to all have close relationships with each other, and that has definitely changed over time. Rispoli thinks that Uni as a whole “is not consolidated enough to create that [close] relationship.”

Singer says “No, I don’t think that we’re all cohesive. There are people I’ve never talked to and probably never will.”

Seniors Jacob Rajlich and Maddie Nelson both believe that the older classes, sophomores-seniors, are closer, but, in Rajlich’s words, “subbies and freshman are more independent.” Subbies Katie Carruba, Nicole Southey, and Kristine Wang agree that subbies are separated from the rest of the school. Carruba says upperclassmen are scary; when going to the upperclassman hallway, Southey shares that “we have to stick together when we go to that floor.”  This is a distinct shift away from the older Uni where all students knew each other and were closer.

On a deeper level, the mission of Uni has changed over time. The school was originally founded in 1921 as a research institution for the University of Illinois College of Education. Bauer explains that when he went to Uni in the early 50s, “one of the purposes was to provide college students with ready access for teaching and research. So, we had many student teachers. They were very fun and very successful. We had graduate students who did research projects on us.”

Greg Smith, current Uni teacher and graduate of the class of 1973, says the atmosphere of research around Uni was different compared to now.

“The general atmosphere in the school was a little bit more experimental. We were certainly operating as an experimental curriculum. In a lot of classes, rather than a conventional textbook, you’d have a Xerox copy of a book the teacher themself was writing. Then there was feedback from the students to help in refining that,”  says Smith.

Walkington explains that “things took a major turn in the early 1980s. (…) The school was spun off from the College of Education and became a different entity under the Provost’s office. The department heads actually being professors from the College of Education ended. A lot of the impetus of the experimental curriculum work, or at least the means to do it, disappeared at the time.” Walkington shares that he wishes Uni had more of an experimental curriculum and a stronger relationship with the College of Education.

“I think we could help the world by trying out new things,” Walkington says.

He says there is a split between people at Uni that want the school to return to its experimental roots and those who do not. That discussion aside, barely any current Uni students have ever participated in research work. Rajlich, current senior, says the last time research was done on his educational process was his subbie year. Junior Ally Sussman and sophomore Elizabeth Singer both say they’ve never been involved in any research.

Uni also originated as a recruiting tool for the University of Illinois.

“The value of this school to the University is that it’s a recruiting tool to bring professors here whose kids can then get in. That’s sort of what the thing is, politically,”  Butler explains.

Compared to when he went to Uni, Smith says “then, as now, the majority of students were sons and daughters of University-affiliated people.” Over time, the Uni High student population has stayed mainly comprised of children of University of Illinois professors. Currently, 200 out of 324 Uni students have University of Illinois affiliations. This kind of select student population lends itself to a certain kind of student.

Smith explains “Uni students now, as then, do tend to come from affluent families and, to some extent, be isolated from the experience of poor people, ordinary people in the world.” Although there is an effort to reach out to other communities through various programs such as the Multicultural Parent Advisory Group (MPAG) and SSAT Tutoring, Uni still severely struggles with having a diverse student population. Currently, Uni is 55.2% white, 30.2% Asian, 5.2% African American, 4.9% Hispanic, 0.3% Native American, and 4% of students identify as two or more races.

Additionally, Uni students used to have more freedom. In three words, Strohbeen describes her time at Uni as “free, fun, and permissive.” According to her, Uni was the first school in town to let girls wear jeans or allow an open campus.

Paul Marty, class of 1989, says “we did all kinds of things that I suspect wouldn’t be allowed today — water gun fights in the hallways, gambling in the lounge, breaking into the school after hours to play pranks on the teachers, etc.” Marty adds, “but this I feel is one of the trade offs of dealing with bright kids. If you want to encourage creativity, you need to grant a little artistic license, and be prepared for some things to get a little off script. My feeling is that things have gotten a bit too locked down at schools these days -even at schools like Uni.”

Butler agrees, saying “since 2000, we’ve had this place on lockdown. You can’t get in without your prox card.” Previously, the building was wide open all day. This “lockdown” is in response to a more recent threat to schools, such as school shootings. Walkington explains that all things are done for safety because they are “the kind of thing that we have to do in the world today.” Nonetheless, Uni students used to have significantly more freedom and mobility at school.

With the old freedom of Uni, students were more radical and boundary pushing. For example, when Ellen Degeneres presented at the University of Illinois last year, about 20 students left school to attend. With knowledge of 34 years at Uni, Murphy shares that if Degeneres would have visited the old Uni, the whole school would have skipped. Richard Lazarus, class of 1971, says that “very few people went to our senior prom with dates. We went all together as a class and wore our normal garb of t-shirts and blue jeans.” Butler explains that this was common in the 60s and 70s with the rebellious generation of the Vietnam War. Walkington describes his perception of students from this time as “unconventional” and “untraditional.” For example, in 1966, the Gargoyle published an article about the Annual Spring Fling Dance. The dance was hell themed with “hell-fire and brimstone decorations that consist of fiery red crepe paper and dry ice in the punch.”

When told about this, senior Ellen Rispoli laughed and said if anyone tried to do something like that now, “the administration would have a cow.”

Building onto the rebelliousness, there was a more joking and pranking culture. In the 80s, along with water fights, gambling, and breaking into school, Marty shared that “for senior gifts [we] gave one teacher a bong and another teacher a giant box of condoms.” Smith affirms that when he went to Uni, there was a prankster culture. Jeff Helfrich, class of 1999, says one time “a bunch of us picked up a classmate’s VW Beetle and placed it in the North entrance to the school.” Similarly, Walker shares that on April Fool’s Day in ‘87 or ‘88, the PE teacher told students to begin their fitness workout. They ran in all directions, jumping into the foam pit and playing on the gymnastics equipment. Strohbeen shares that it was common for students to play pranks on teachers. Lazarus shares that “it was not unheard of for Uni students to visit the homes of school officials in the evenings and engage in mischief.”

These kinds of actions would not take place and would not be tolerated at Uni today.

Sophomore Kathryn Dullerud explains “no one really pranks teachers anymore.” Southey says she doesn’t ever see Uni students ever doing crazy or boundary pushing things. Sophomore Jared Rosenbaum adds “Uni kids are not that rebellious at all. I think nowadays Uni are much more conformists.” Wang says “here, kids are scared to get in trouble. That’s a common trait.”

The pranking of the earlier generations suggests that students had very strong student-teacher relationships. Marty describes how he and his friends had a back-and-forth pranking relationship with Butler. Overall, Marty remembers Uni as having “very close [student-teacher] relationships that I think is rare to see at other schools.” Walker shares that she would often go to U of I basketball or volleyball games with students. But with many court cases lately involving student-teacher relationships, Butler says “teachers have to be a lot more careful.” Nonetheless, Butler says “I think we’ve always had good, close relationships with the kids.”

Over time at Uni, there has been a trend away from political activism. Richard Lazarus, class of 1971, states “our political activism was probably our signature.”

In old print Gargoyles, there are passionate student opinions on Republicans, marijuana legalization, the Afghan Wars, and more. Lazarus says that Uni students would often attend demonstrations or rallies on the U of I campus. Strohbeen shares “when I was a subfreshman, in spring of 1970, the Vietnam War riots took place on campus. The National Guard surrounded Uni so that none of our students would go down to join the riot.” Smith believes that previous generations of Uni students were much more tuned in to the larger world. Butler says he thinks Uni students have become less politically active and “more complacent about stuff.”

As early as 1997, there were opinion articles in the Gargoyle on how Uni students are “overly concerned with academics and aren’t aware of the world beyond their sheltered lives.” Rispoli agrees with this, adding “Uni students are totally complacent these days. (…) It’s very saddening.” Rajlich says, “I don’t know if people really care enough anymore. More and more each year, people are just like ‘oh well’ rather trying to keep things the way that they were or the way that they’re supposed to be done.”

Instead of being tuned into the outer world, Uni students have become wrapped up in their schoolwork. When asked if Uni has transformed into a college prep school, Walker responded, “I don’t think there’s any doubt.” Smith adds, “in recent years, there’s been more of an emphasis on a high-quality, college prep education experience.” Leff shares that he hears fellow teachers talk a lot about stress in current students, but when he went to Uni from 1996-2001, there were also kids who were wrapped up in school.

Like everything, Uni is a product of its time. Uni is always influenced by cultural factors, such as the more free-thinking time of the 60s and 70s. Various specific attitudes and behaviors have shifted over time, but there have also been broader, more significant changes in the school. However, it’s important to note that the core of Uni students has been able to stay the same. Smith eloquently states, “We have done a good job of maintaining the atmosphere here: where children know each other and support each other, and are focused on their academics.”