Photo of a sign that says "please wear a mask" next to a path on CWRU's campus with students wearing masks walking nearby

Student draws from history to understand university life amid a pandemic

Over the past year, students at universities across the world have faced unique challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For many, it has meant wearing masks everywhere, studying remotely, gathering virtually with friends and plenty of uncertainty. And for one Case Western Reserve University undergraduate, looking toward history has helped her make sense of what she and her peers are experiencing.

Grace Bentley, a junior majoring in history and art history, wrote her capstone paper for HSTY 398: Senior Research Seminar about university life during the 1918–19 influenza pandemic that resulted in an estimated 50 million deaths around the world and serves as a clear comparison to the current pandemic.

Photo of Grace Bentley
Grace Bentley

As someone currently living in an apartment near campus and taking a combination of remote and in-person courses, Bentley focused her efforts on familiar territory: the way students at Western Reserve University and Case School of Applied Science experienced a pandemic. She credits Peter Shulman, associate professor of history, for helping her develop the idea after she initially proposed comparing the response of two cities: St. Louis and Philadelphia. Those cities had what are considered to be the best and worst responses to the pandemic, respectively, but Bentley knew that research had already been done before.

Shulman encouraged her to take a student-life approach, and ultimately gave Bentley the chance to work directly with University Archives looking through primary sources.

She said doing original research made her feel like “as much of a historian as I could possibly be.”

The days she spent in the archives digging through old student newspapers and yearbooks—even touching manuscripts typed out by Charles Thwing 100 years ago—were the most rewarding part of her research. 

“One of my favorite parts of history is getting a sense of what daily life was like—I feel like it really connects you with the humanity of it all throughout the decades, through the centuries,” Bentley said.

Similarities and differences

Bentley had anticipated how different the students’ lives in 1918–19 would have been without access to the technology to which today’s students are accustomed, but she also found unexpected trends in her research.

While much of what is written about student life today will eventually be in the context of the pandemic, students in 1918–19 were much more focused on World War I, then referred to as the Great War. As a result, most of the resources Bentley found on students’ experiences during the pandemic were overshadowed by the war efforts. In her capstone paper, Bentley related that back to how much of what is said about today’s pandemic has political undertones.

In the student-written pieces she read, Bentley said the pandemic didn’t appear to be a primary topic of concern. However, she found mentions of students complaining about four-week quarantines, during which time they were stuck in their dormitories or barracks.

She came across some other familiar topics, too. In some of the op-eds she read, people thought the pandemic was a serious concern, while others thought it was overblown. 

“Reading all these newspapers made me realize we’ve gone through this before,” Bentley said. She credits her project for helping her make sense of the world now, as history often does.

“[History] gives you a map for navigating the world nowadays and understanding what led to what,” she said.

Bentley plans to expand upon her research this semester by next examining students’ responses from 1918–19 at Stanford University and the University of California, Berkeley.