[Cover Story] HSU Alumni, Who They Are, Where They Are, and Where They’re Going

As it nears its 100th year, Humboldt State has more than 50,000 graduates. They’ve spread out and settled across the country and around the world, making major contributions to their communities and in their professions—areas like education, forestry, natural resources, alternative energy, wildlife, art and more.

As an alum (’06, German with a minor in Journalism), I know a bit about the strong connection graduates feel with HSU. Like you, I frequently meet other alumni—both when I travel or locally at the grocery store. In my role as a writer and now editor of Humboldt magazine, I come across many alumni success stories. But I was curious to know more about our far-reaching community.

WITH MUCH LESS THAN a fully developed plan, I set out. My first stop: The HSU Library’s Humboldt room, where librarian Joan Berman and archivist Edie Butler helped me delve into the earliest records of Humboldt State alumni.

From a host of materials—commencement programs to yearbooks—I got to know the alumni who made up Humboldt’s earliest graduating classes. In 1915, the small Humboldt State Normal School graduated just 15 students. The campus would grow to 654 by 1950 (see fig. 1) and wouldn’t expand to its current size of about 7,500 students until the 1970s (A side note: In 1962 the California State University trustees predicted campus enrollment would reach 12,000 by 1990. Imagine trying to find a parking space). At the beginning of Humboldt State’s existence, even the split between genders was surprising. In the 1930s, when the school started keeping records of this sort, the campus was nearly three-quarters women (see fig. 2). In the 1950s and 60s, as the campus’ emphasis focused on natural resources, men made up the majority of students. By the millennium, however, women made up a slim majority of students—a figure that follows national trends.

Fall Enrollment at the Start of Decades
1914 55
1920 N/A
1930 372
1940 427
1950 654
1960 2,071
1970 5,479
1980 7,419
1990 7,654
2000 7,433
2010 7,902

fig. 1

From Mostly Women, To Mostly Men, to Mostly Even
1930s 74% 26%
1940s 59% 41%
1950s 38% 62%
1960s 32% 68%
1970s 36% 64%
1980s 45% 55%
1990s 51% 49%
2000s 56% 44%

Humboldt State Normal School’s first graduating class in 1914 was made up of 15 women. Football games in the 1920s were only possible when every available man on campus was forced onto the field. By the 1930s almost three-quarters of the graduates were women. Then, from the 1950s to early 1970s, the campus population grew from 750 to more than 6,000 students, and men made up nearly two-thirds of the student body. By the 2000s, following national trends, women were once again the majority.

fig. 2

After opening in April 1914, it wasn’t long before the campus would begin to honor its alumni. In fall 1924 the Alumni Association formed to sponsor the first homecoming game, which honored the class of 1917 and included a 9-0 victory over Arcata High School (Yes, high school).

small map

Digging through the archives, it became clear the alumni of the 1920s and ’30s were especially committed to Humboldt State. They supported the growing school in many ways, including lobbying for support at the state level, offering housing for current students and even providing an early student loan program. In 1933 the Alumni Association published the Humboldt Alumnus, a precursor to this magazine.

In a stark reminder of the enrollment drop during the First World War, which threatened to close the school, World War II caused a major dip in the number of graduates. The 1944 graduating class from Humboldt State Teachers College, as it was then known, was only 27 students. By fall of that year, enrollment would drop to 176.

Following the war, enrollment soon rebounded and by the 1960s, Humboldt State alumni numbered in the thousands and the campus established the Who’s Who Award to honor outstanding alumni. The first award went to George E. Hogan from the class of 1933, and since then, more than 80 alumni have received this honor. Today, the tradition is continued with the Distinguished Alumni Awards. Humboldt Alumni seeks nominations from all members of campus, including alumni. In fact, if you know a deserving Humboldt State alum, drop by alumni.humboldt.edu and share their story.

Quite a few students wind up with more than a degree from Humboldt State, they also meet the person they’ll marry.

In the 1970s, the Alumni Association continued its work of keeping former students connected to their alma mater. In 1975, the Humboldt Alumnus became the Humboldt Stater. During that time, however, campus enrollment began a decline, notably in the social sciences and humanities. After reaching 7,500 students in 1974, enrollment dropped to 6,735 by 1978. The following year, campus sought to increase campus morale and the Great Humboldt Spirit Celebration looked to the community to enhance homecoming. That year, the alumni king and queen were chosen from the class of 1917.

It wasn’t long before I had a real sense of who Humboldt State alumni were, and their contributions to campus. For one thing, alumni have never stopped giving back. In 2010, alone, an impressive 4,000 alumni made financial gifts to the university. Many of those gifts went to the Humboldt Loyalty Fund, which supports things like specialized equipment for labs, art supplies and digital art collections, talks by visiting scholars, student presentations at academic conferences, and much more. But I still wanted to know more. It turns out, the folks at Humboldt Alumni did to.

Farthest Flung Alum Roshitha L Amarsinghe, Colombo, Sri Lanka, 8,812 Miles from HSUIn their offices, I came across a survey HSU Alumni conducted in 2009 that gauged alumni attitudes on everything from opinions about campus today to their experiences as students. The responses were incredibly positive. About three-quarters of alumni said attending HSU was a great decision, and the vast majority agreed their education prepared them well for life-long learning. A little more than half said they regularly promote HSU. Others praised the campus for its quality academics and the valuable relationships forged between students and faculty.

Alumni said they wanted more opportunities to stay connected with the university. They were clear they want social events for Humboldt State grads throughout the state of California—where more than 35,000 alumni live—and beyond (see our alumni map for more details on alumni living across the country).

Number of Alumni Living Internationally as of 2011
Africa 6
Asia 33
Japan 42
Australia 23
Europe 48
South America 14
North America (outside U.S.) 52

fig. 3

Alumni Living in the Humboldt Area
1930s 15
1940s 50
1950s 182
1960s 473
1970s 1,115
1980s 1,534
1990s 2,311
2000s 4,181
2010s 1,033

fig. 4

Currently 24 alumni in the Peace Coprs, HSU ranked #20, and 764 alumni have served since 1961In sitting down with the folks at the alumni offices, I came across a host of other information about Humboldt grads. Did you know more than 700 Humboldt alumni have participated in the Peace Corps since its inception in 1961? HSU currently ranks No. 20 among schools its size for sending students into the corps. Beyond Peace Corps experience, more than 200 alumni are living internationally (see fig. 3). Not surprisingly, and I’m among this group, more than 10,000 alumni are still living in the Humboldt Area (see fig. 4). This number corresponds well with another set of data I came across concerning Humboldt State alumni. In 2010, the campus’ Institute for Research and Planning conducted a survey of graduating seniors. The most interesting finding? Almost a quarter of that class came from the Los Angeles area but more than 30 percent of respondents said they intend to stay in Humboldt County and only 8 percent are planning on heading to Los Angeles. Say what you will about Humboldt County’s fog, clearly something has caught the hearts and minds of these students (see fig. 5 and 6).

Where Students Come From (2010)
Los Angeles Area 26%
Other States 16%
Local 15%
San Francisco Bay Area 13%
Northern California 11%
Central California 8%
San Diego Area 6%
Foreign 1%
Other/Unknown 4%

fig. 5

Where Grads Plan to Live (2010)
Humboldt County 34%
San Francisco Bay Area 12%
Northern California 11%
Los Angeles Area 8%
San Diego Area 3%
Central California 3%
Out of State 15%
Out of Country 4%
Not Sure 10%

fig. 6

What Grads Plan to Do (2010)
Hunt for Employment 48%
Graduate or Professional Study 31%
Volunteer Service 9%
Start a Family 6%
Further Under-Graduate Study 2%
Armed Services 1%
Other 3%

fig. 7

Then the Humboldt Alumni staff turned me on to the Alumni Discovery Project. The idea behind the project is to have current students sit down with alumni throughout California and talk about the campus “back then” and how their lives have been shaped by their Humboldt State education.

The project started this summer break, with seven students matched up with alumni in their home region. And from all indications, it has been a great success. The students were inspired, and alumni shared interesting stories as well as their opinions about what makes Humboldt great. Many alumni later called into Humboldt Alumni to say how much they enjoyed meeting the students and how honored they were to be selected (see the Discovering HSU’s Alumni sidebar to the right).

Once the semester picked up, I sat down with the students from the Discovery Project and got a feel for the work they had done. “I wasn’t expecting to grow so much from this project,” said Vanessa Gonsalves, a Communication major, from San Jose.

“Talking to so many successful alumni really inspired me and excited me about my future,” said Jeff Bertotti, an Anthropology major from El Dorado Hills, Calif.

One thing Humboldt State prides itself on is the hands-on nature of its academic programs. According to Carsten Charlesworth, a Zoology major who worked with the project, folks in the “real world” know this too. “A lot of the alumni in management positions I spoke with say they like to hire HSU alumni because of their hands-on approach to problem-solving. Other people might be qualified, but HSU grads aren’t afraid to dig into a problem to find the solution.”

After talking with these students, I bumped into fellow HSU alum, Steve Smith (’77 Wildlife management, ’81 Biological Sciences), who is now Dean of our College of Natural Resources and Sciences. Smith tells me he’s “living the dream” in his current position. I ran Charleseworth’s notion of HSU grads taking their hands-on approach into the workforce and Smith echoed this comment. “The alumni I run into talk about the best parts of Humboldt State—the hands-on learning, working closely with their professors. They really speak highly about the formative education they received at Humboldt State,” he said.

As I wrapped up my research into the world of HSU alumni, I knew quite a bit about my fellow Humboldt graduates. It turned out I had plenty to keep our graphic designers busy, as you can see with all the charts and graphs.

And more than ever, I understand the value of the Class notes section of this magazine. Take a look—this issue has more notes than ever. And if you’d like to update your fellow alumni on what you’ve been up to please visit humboldt.edu/classnotes to share your news .

Discovering HSU’s Alumni

THE HUMBOLDT ALUMNI DISCOVERY Project matched a group of seven HSU students with alumni across California. In more than 350 interviews this summer, alumni shared stories of their campus memories, lives after college and what an HSU education means to them. All the students working on the project agreed that talking with HSU alumni opened their eyes to a world of possibilities after college and impacted them in ways they never expected.

“Seeing the graduates through the years really makes me proud to be an HSU student,” said Vanessa Gonsalves, one of the Discovery Project students.

A few things alumni had to say…

“It was very small, only about 1,000 people when I graduated. Everyone was very friendly and you knew everyone on campus. You knew your professors very well.”

“I cherished the sense of community that running brought to my life. I still keep in touch with many of my track and cross country friends to this day.”

“Making very close connections with fellow students. We used to call each other at 1 a.m. for help on assignments.”

“I enjoyed the hands-on experience I received and that the university cared about the environment.”

“Some of my favorite memories are riding my bike across Arcata and going to the farmer’s market.”