Opinion | UI’s first student changed University history

By Noah Nelson, Senior Columnist

Each semester, new students enter the University for the first time and a whole new world. However long they spend on campus, they’ve chosen to attend the University for a reason.

According to the 1950 book “Illini Years,” as the wind howled on Monday, March 2, 1868, 15-year-old James Newton Matthews from Mason, Illinois changed history. Credited as the first student to arrive at Illinois Industrial University, the school’s former name, Matthews set a precedent.

He became the first student to not only attend the University but chose to do so on his terms. During his college career, before joining the first graduates in 1872, Matthews studied literature and medicine. He spent his life working as a public doctor on the Illinois prairie while also publishing poetry — becoming friends with literary greats like James Whitcomb Riley and Mark Twain in the process.

Matthews could’ve chosen any school in the growing nation to attend. At the time, many other states had already established public colleges, and Ivy League institutions were still standing strong. It’s difficult telling what caused Matthews to attend the University, a school barely off and running, but he did, thus unbeknownst to him causing a beautiful chain of events.

Over the years, thousands of others chose to attend the University over other schools — following in Matthews’ footsteps. While all of their reasons may be different, it’s safe to say one is a shared common bond. Students choose to attend the University because they believe it’s the school that will serve as a stepping stone from adolescence to adulthood, being a place for higher education, culture and countless memories.

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University students have made the right decision, too. In the University’s more than 150 year history, alumni have left the institution and have gone on to change the world. They’ve traveled to space, worked in the White House, won Pulitzer and Nobel Prizes, created everyday objects, founded well-known companies and made scientific discoveries.

The University must have had some impact on their lives.

Even nowadays, alumni can’t stay away from campus. They return for athletic events, social gatherings, strolls around campus and so much more. Why would they want to be anywhere else?

No one seems to remember or even know who Matthews was or his impact on the University but they should. His decision to attend led all of us to be at the University too.

For that, we should be forever grateful. I know I am.

Noah is a senior in Media.

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