On the walls of Memorial Church, built in 1931 to commemorate Harvard's fallen soldiers in the "Great War," are chiseled the names of over 550 students from the College who had sacrificed their lives in World War II.
But while Harvard mourned her fallen sons, it was the ones who made it back, and an influx of G.I. Bill veterans, who were to permanently alter the fabric of undergraduate life--from housing and classes to the social life and topics of debate on campus.
The students were older (the average first-year age was over 20 years old), more experienced, more studious, more vocal and some even brought their families.
The population of the College exploded as G.I.'s were admitted. The Class of 1950, with 1,645 members, grew so large because over the half the class--896--were returning veterans. The Admissions Office reported in 1946 that "it seems probable that there will never again be as many men registered."
And while the numbers reflect a vastly different Harvard being shaped, it was in the lecture halls, dining halls and social mixers where the unwritten divisions between veterans and non-veterans were either solidified or slowly faded, and a new College community was shaped.
With Open Arms
For its part, the University gratefully welcomed the returning victors, and former students who left for the war were welcomed with open arms by the University.
"With anxious pride, Harvard awaits the day of your return," President James B. Conant '14 told students leaving for the war in 1943. Three years later, with the war over, Conant wrote that the guiding purpose of the College should be "to use its resources to their utmost in the service of the generation who education has been interrupted by war."
The college went to great lengths to track down the students, trying to account for all of them. The ones who were killed were added to the wall in Memorial Church, and the ones who survived the war were asked to return to the College.
In fact, of the 3,600 students who interrupted their education for the war, more than 2,500 had re-enrolled by 1947.
And returning students were not the only ones enrolling at Harvard.
Under the G.I. Bill, officially known as the Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944, veterans received stipends to attend college or vocational training.
In the five years after the bill's passage, nine million veterans would use it to gain more education--and Harvard was no exception.
The admissions office loved the new onslaught of applications. They were able to exercise an "unusual degree of selection" among applicants, the office reported.
However, while attempting to raise academic standards overall, they recognized many of the soldiers did not come from the same academic background as the prep-schoolers that were applying.
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