The campus of Colorado State University-Pueblo can be seen from miles away. Positioned on a reclusive hill on the edge of town, the school watches over Pueblo silently. To onlookers, its distinctive architecture is a striking reminder of the students who, for generations, have spent four years of their lives there.
Or at least that’s how it was supposed to be.
When the campus was first built, its state-of-the-art design received national praise in the February 1967 issue of the magazine Architecture/West.
“The problem which Pueblo posed for a new college was that the architecture be a symbol: a symbol of education and culture; a symbol strong enough to create a favorable image with which to envelope the city,” it said.
The modern campus of CSU-Pueblo was also intended to be a symbol of the hard-won battle fought by the students and legislators who put it there in the first place.
A few years before the campus was built in 1964, the school was known as Pueblo Junior College and its degree options were limited to two-year programs.
“A four-year college will improve the image of Pueblo, benefit the students and parents of the whole of Southeastern Colorado, help sell new industry on the city and in the area and give a tax reduction.” -Richard Cline, president of the Young Democrats of Pueblo, 1963.
“In 1960, Pueblo was one of only four of the largest 200 cities in the U.S. that did not have an accredited four-year college within 25 miles,” according to a commemorative video compiled by the university archives.
At that time, though, local students wanted more.
In December 1960, a crowd of young people gathered in a ballroom to show their support for a four-year college in Pueblo. Their dream, which would allow them to obtain more advanced degrees, meant that they could get an education within the city limits of a town that many of them called home.
And the Puebloans who stayed were loyal to their town. In a February issue, co-editor of campus newspaper, The Arrow, Jim Osnowitz wrote in an editorial that students were remaining too loyal to their Pueblo high schools upon entering college.
Regardless of their motivations, though, Pueblo students were eager to stay in their hometown for college and make a good impression on the public, which would ultimately vote on the measure.
“If PC were already a four-year college, impressions would not be so important, but as it stands now, one of the most important phases of transformation of the school’s status is that of public relations. This is mostly up to the students and the impression they make on the public,” wrote Peggy Stock, co-editor of The Arrow.
The push for a four-year university in Pueblo wasn’t just limited to students, however.
The rest of the community saw the school as an opportunity for Pueblo to grow economically and for the city’s image to improve.
Pueblo Senator Vincent Massari led the legislative push to turn the university into a four-year institution in the ‘60s, with tremendous support from the community.
“A four-year college will improve the image of Pueblo, benefit the students and parents of the whole of Southeastern Colorado, help sell new industry on the city and in the area and give a tax reduction,” said Richard Cline, president of the Young Democrats of Pueblo in 1963.
“The money from the state government will continue to be forth-coming in 1964—especially in the view of the rapid growth and economic importance of our area,” he said.
All of those hopes weren’t new, however.
In 1926, before a university even existed in Pueblo, the Colorado senate killed a bill that would have created a four-year college in the town. Within a few years, though, Pueblo had a two-year school.
When the college began accepting its first students in 1933, the entire population fit into three vacant rooms in the Pueblo County Courthouse. Then known as Southern Colorado Junior College, the school only accommodated 63 students. In 1935, SCJC’s first graduating class consisted of 17 students.
As the school began to grow, it moved into buildings in central Pueblo and stayed there for 29 years. The Orman Avenue campus, now Pueblo Community College, welcomed students to its first building in the fall of 1937.
The original building plans for the Orman Avenue campus were meticulous. These old documents, signed by people who are now long-gone, depict a time when typewriters and cursive writing were the standard.
Fading blue ink accounts for even the most seemingly obvious building instructions, including a declaration that, “Before ordering (bathroom) partitions, the contractor shall take measurements at the building.”
There came a time, however, when even those buildings, with all of their scrupulous planning, failed to house the growing student population.
Various 1960s issues of The Arrow reported that the school began breaking enrollment records nearly every consecutive semester back then.
At the time, Pueblo Junior College only had 23 actual classrooms. As the population grew, so did the need for new buildings, especially if the school was going to be a four-year institution.
The student population was growing so fast in the face of the transition to a four-year college that many students were concerned with having to stay at the Orman Avenue campus while the new campus was built.
“I am sure that all will agree that the long-term benefits to be derived will make it all worth while, as we envision the development of one of the most beautiful college campuses in the state of Colorado,” Pueblo Junior College President M.C. Knudson wrote in a 1962 Arrow editorial.
“If the (board of trustees) approve this plan of dissolution and the necessary funds are forthcoming from the state legislature, Pueblo Junior College will cease to exist on Sept. 1, 1963, and become a state-supported four-year college,” he wrote.
In May 1964, about 2,500 people attended the groundbreaking ceremony for a campus that would go on to house generations of Pueblo students. But recently, enrollment has been dwindling and, unlike students who were proud to stay in their Pueblo hometown for school, students are now finding themselves leaving their hometown in droves.
Would Pueblo even have a four-year college if it were up to modern Pueblo kids to fight for it?
Three years ago, when my friends and I first started applying to colleges, nearly all of them said they wanted to get out of Pueblo, and many of them did.
Even today, when I tell people that I stayed in Pueblo for college, they give me a sidelong glance, like they think it must have been my only option. CSU-Pueblo’s reputation among young people is that it’s a cheap and easy school to get into. Too easy. So easy that it must be a fallback school.
And the city of Pueblo isn’t exactly favorable among young people, either.
In some ways, it’s difficult to blame the kids who leave. The standard complaint is that there is nothing to do in town, especially for people under 21. And it’s true. An 18-year-old would be hard-pressed to find a place to hang out after 10 p.m. in Pueblo.
The pride that young people felt in the ‘60s for their hometown has been replaced by a series of explanations as to why they chose to stay here for school.
In Osnowitz’s editorial about college students remaining too loyal to their high schools, he shared his annoyance with students who still wore their letter jackets to class and attended high school football games. To him, their pride in the Pueblo community outweighed even their pride in their college.
Today, students who stayed in Pueblo for college feel like they have to explain themselves. This conversation pops up from time to time, when I’m in the company of a fellow Pueblo native who decided to attend CSU-Pueblo. The topic has actually inundated so many conversations that the explanations have become robotic.
One friend of mine told me she stayed because she didn’t want to move. She simply wanted to stay at home. Another said she didn’t want to pay more for the same education at another school. But those explanations are never enough for critical outsiders.
It’s not enough that I liked CSU-Pueblo’s mass communications department or that I thought I could still get a good education here. It had to be that I got a full scholarship. To other people, that must have been the only legitimate reason why I would stay here. And sometimes, I catch myself telling them that.
In recent years, a stigma has developed amongst young people about attending college in Pueblo. But if high school students don’t want to stay here for college, then what were the students and legislators in the ‘60s fighting for?
Would Pueblo even have a four-year college if it were up to modern Pueblo kids to fight for it?
In 2013, the administration of CSU-Pueblo announced a budget crisis that it attributed to declining enrollment. When it was all over, 22 staff positions were cut, most of which were unfilled.
To this day, the administration is concerned with working to increase enrollment numbers. The university reported gains in enrollment in fall 2014 and again in the spring, when the total on-campus enrollment was 4,082. According to the CSU-Pueblo fact book, even that number is down 1,148 from fall 2011, when the on-campus enrollment was at 5,230.
That’s a sharp contrast to the 1960s, when enrollment records were breaking after every consecutive semester.
In a fall 2012 survey distributed to entering CSU-Pueblo freshman, 33.5 percent of the students who took it identified themselves as Pueblo natives. Another 23.1 percent identified themselves as natives of other southeastern Colorado counties and 27 percent said they were from other Colorado counties.
So, if the majority of CSU-Pueblo’s students are from around Pueblo, and enrollment is down, what does that mean for Pueblo?
The idea that local kids are moving out of town isn’t only a problem for Pueblo. Millennials have been flocking to urban areas since they have been old enough to move and according to Pew Research, it looks like the upcoming generation will continue that trend.
The age grouping for millennials cuts off at people who were born in 1996, so kids that are currently high school seniors belong to the next generation. As those students look toward graduation in May, many of them will likely move out of Pueblo for college, too.
But for the university and Southern Colorado, just like in the 1960s, a new generation of students will have to ask themselves why should they stay and what kind of university they want to build. What is the reasoning? It’s a new millennium but for college students the existential questions of identity remains the same.