Uncovering untold stories, traditions through the East Campus Oral History Project

Contact: Sara Volmering
Cassie Kotrch

Cassie Kotrch, a film, video and media studies major, led a collaborative project to capture oral histories from alumni, staff and faculty who lived, learned and worked on East Campus over the decades.

KALAMAZOO, Mich.— A new oral history project spearheaded by the Western Michigan University Libraries' Zhang Legacy Collections Center uncovers the untold stories of the people who lived, learned and worked on Western's East Campus. The project collected interviews from 57 alumni, faculty and staff who lived, learned and worked on East Campus over the decades. The interview transcripts will be publicly available in the University Libraries' online institutional repository, Scholarworks.

"The thing that I love most about this project is that it's really based on people. It's a project for people by people about people. So, it's not just about the buildings," says Cassie Kotrch, the lead interviewer and project manager of the East Campus oral history project.

The East Campus oral history project incubated for several years with the staff at the Zhang before the right time, interest and talent intersected to move it forward.

With support from the Friends of Historic East Campus (FOHEC), the project took off when Kotrch, a senior in Western's film, video and media studies program, joined the Zhang team in 2022. Kotrch worked closely with Archives Curator John Winchell to prepare for the project.

(Left to right) Archives curator John Winchell, Kotrch, and Dean Julie Garrison

(Left to right) Archives curator John Winchell, Kotrch, and Dean Julie Garrison celebrated the East Campus oral history project during the June 8 unveiling reception.

Armed with a stack of books, photos, clippings, and yearbooks, Kotrch researched East Campus history to help jog memories, provide story context, and develop more nuanced interview questions.

"I basically became like a crash course expert on East Campus," she says.

Though working on oral history projects was a new experience for Kotrch, she utilized her experience as a Western Herald reporter and editor to prepare for the interviews.

"I was an editor at the Western Herald and a reporter there. And through COVID-19, especially, I got a lot of experience in very different formats of interviewing," she says.

This experience helped Kotrch conduct in-person and online interviews with 57 Western alumni, emeriti and retirees located across the globe.

Interviews started at the July 2022 reunion for students of State High—or University High, as it was later called—the high school that operated on Western's campus from 1911 to 1966.

Western's history as a teaching college is well-known, but fewer people know East Campus was home to a working K-12 school run by faculty and student teachers.

During the reunion, Kotrch interviewed State High alumni on their experiences growing up on a college campus. From self-proclaimed faculty brats to student-athletes, these former students shared their stories, painting a picture of life at Western during this period.

"(East Campus) felt like its own little community within Western was the sense that I got from many different people and many different stories," she says.

After the reunion's success, the project team expanded their focus to include people connected to East Campus from other areas of Western, including alumni, faculty, and staff from the College of Business, School of Art, University Libraries and other departments. The College of Business was initially housed in North Hall on East Campus before moving to the West (or Main) Campus. Students and faculty artists used East Hall for studio and gallery space from the 1990s through 2010. East Hall also housed the University Archives and Regional History collections until the Zhang Legacy Collections Center opened in 2013.

Cassie Kotrch at a podium

Kotrch unveiled the East Campus oral histories at a reception with the Friends of Historic East Campus on June 8.

These stories include many rich details about campus life, including interactions with past Western presidents Dwight B. Waldo, Paul V. Sangren and James W. Miller, student perspectives on the Vietnam War, and even art installations in East Hall basement closets.  

"You really get this just full picture of Western as a whole throughout the years going all the way back to the beginning of Western," Kotrch says. "And then you also see these strings of traditions that have stayed, and some that have changed."

One of the more humorous traditions between generations: parking challenges.

"As soon as parking in cars were on campus, there are complaints about parking," she says. "And when you talk to students today, it's the same thing."

Kotrch discovered another common theme in all the interviews—people’s experiences at Western changed their lives, helped them develop life-long relationships, and created deep care and fondness for Western.

"I had the pleasure of meeting so many people and being able to hear their life story and how Western was a huge part of that life story and how they changed the trajectory of their lives," she says.

Following the interviews, Kotrch edited and prepared the transcripts for the online archive for the project. All 59 interview transcripts will be available online in Scholarworks, Western's institutional repository, by the end of June. The recordings will also be housed in the WMU Archives at the Zhang Legacy Collections Center. The initial online collection was unveiled at a reception hosted by FOHEC and University Advancement on June 8

Winchell notes that adding primary sources enhances the existing collections. The East Campus oral history collection may enhance future research in several disciplines.

"One of the things that I think is always true with archives is sometimes you don't always know exactly how things you're going to be used. Or an approach that somebody sees for something down the road. You can't always anticipate every potential use for a resource. But this will be there," he says.

"It is my first project that could also be used for future research purposes and is still available to the public," adds Kotrch.

Kotrch graduated in December 2022, and she will complete her work on the oral history project in June before she moves on to study creative producing at DePaul University in Los Angeles. Her experience working on this project has made a lasting impact on her professional trajectory.

"It really impacted me in what I want to go on to do," she says. "The type of stories that I want to tell. (To) really to focus any future projects that I will work on, on the people that it's about and the people that are involved. To meet and talk to people that were there and have stories that happened in buildings that we only have pictures of now was really an awesome experience. It was an opportunity of a lifetime."

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