Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Students Take On the Challenge of Telling Hofstra’s Story

The students and their professors sat around a small table in the New Academic Building last April, dissecting a tape-recording of an interview with a Hofstra alumna who was eloquent, thoughtful and measured recounting memories of her time on campus.

A good interview, but it could have been even better, Hofstra Professor of History James A. Levy told the group. “She seemed a little guarded, didn’t she?” he asked the students. “What could have been done differently to make her relax a bit more?”

And so began another session of Hofstra’s oral historians, a group of 11 students who spent the spring 2010 semester tracking down more than 100 alumni and others with Hofstra ties to tell the story of the institution’s first 75 years. The students, who were on paid internships, were supervised by Levy and Geri Solomon, assistant dean of special collections and Hofstra University archivist.

Highlights of their work, in the form of photo essays, slideshows and audio documentaries, can be found at, which was created with help from students in Hofstra’s graduate program in documentary film and production. The entire project, transcribed and processed, will eventually become part of the University’s Special Collections, and will serve as the basis for a permanent, expanded oral history collection.

The 75th anniversary oral history project selected subjects from a group of more than 350 people affiliated with the University in some way, trying to make sure the in-depth interviews represented a diverse cross section of people. Levy and Solomon will continue to accept suggestions for additional subjects throughout the 75th anniversary celebration year. There are also plans to set up mobile story booths at various events during the spring 2011 semester to give more people a chance to share their memories of Hofstra.

Beyond creating a unique historical record of the University, the project had a profound impact on the student historians, Levy said. “The effect on the students was amazing,” Levy said. “The way they stretched themselves, what they learned about interviewing people, and from the subjects themselves, was extraordinary.”

Every Wednesday for months, Levy, Solomon and the students met to discuss whom to interview, how to track down subjects and, most importantly, how to draw them out during interviews. In the process, the students compiled stories that are, by turns, deeply moving, intensely personal and often funny accounts of Hofstra history, told by those who lived it.

Nelson DeMille, Class of 1970, described his experience at Hofstra during the Vietnam War era, and how much the campus changed between the time he began his studies and when he returned, after a stint in the Army. Hofstra alumna and English Professor Barbara Bengels recalled what it was like, as a pregnant faculty member, to get stuck in the middle of a student protest inside the Adams Playhouse. And Hofstra President Stuart Rabinowitz recounted how, as a young law school graduate who had never lived outside New York, he applied for jobs across the country – only to end up captivated by a fledgling law school on Long Island.

If you have a story to share or would like more information about the project, please contact James A. Levy in the History Department at 516-463-4224 or or Geri Solomon in Special Collections at 516-463-6407 or


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