On this day in 1944 the GI Bill was signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Who would know that my 9 year old self of that day would make a connection to that event?
The GI Bill was a remarkable piece of legislation that opened the doors to college education for the WWII GI's. They flooded into colleges and universities in unprecedented numbers. Even doubling the enrollments in some institutions. Before WWII college was the opportunity of the wealthy elite 18 year olds. Only 15 percent of the 18 year old population went on to college. The GI's flooded to this opportunity to advance their lives unrestricted by costs that would have been prohibitive in the past. In retrospect it was one of the most useful pieces of social legislation every passed by our Congress.
Here is the personal connection. I entered Syracuse University in 1952 as the first of my family to go to college. Not on the GI Bill but on a Chancellors's scholarship. Next year I transferred to Cornell University more to akin to my interests in engineering and agriculture. The wave of GI's had passed through Cornell where it had challenged the faculty to deal with a totally committed and serious population of older students. During my undergraduate years at Cornell I encountered veteran faculty members who had experienced the glut of GI's entering their classes. As a student Teaching Assistant of Professor Burton A. Jennings I had the honor of hearing him reminisce about the dedication of his GI students. He would describe them as no nonsense, eager to learn and get on with life individuals. He had the greatest respect and admiration for their commitment. In a sense those of us who came from families that had not experience a college education were the next wave starting in the 1950's and 1960's.
As an end note I had my own experience with returning GI's from the Viet Nam war. By that time I was a professor at Cornell as well. I clearly remember the Viet Nam veterans in my classes as the most dedicated and admirable students. And so these waves pass through our institutions. I trust that each generation is looking for upward mobility. As a nation we owe those who have sacrificed in wars a boost to more opportunity.