Meet some of the first students of SFU

May 31, 2021
On June 6, 1966: students spontaneously jumped into the fountain and began to dance during the "Compass-A-Go-Go" fund-raising drive.

When Simon Fraser University first opened its doors to 2,500 charter students in 1965, few believed it would do so on time or foresaw that it would become one of Canada’s most respected institutions and among the world’s top 50 universities.

Gordon Shrum, SFU’s first chancellor, had envisioned a campus that would be distinguished first and foremost by its site and architecture. However, what would come to define SFU—once called “Berkeley North” after the hotbed of American radicalism—was its unique student body. Many of these students occupied the administration building to protest admissions practices, rallied against the construction of a Shell service station, and set up a daycare after their request for one was denied by administration.

“SFU is a place, but what is a place without its people?” asks George Bartel (BA ’69), one of SFU’s charter students—also known as the first students to attend the university.

The birth of an extraordinary institution

Gillian Holter

As one of the younger institutions in the country at just 56 years, collective memories of SFU’s early years still live on with students like Bartel who were there for its tumultuous beginnings. But as each generation of students, faculty members and staff are replaced, the risk of losing this vital piece of history becomes greater.

“The knowledge and memories that charter students have are very important to today’s students so they can understand how the university has grown and shaped lives,” says Gillian “Jill” Holter (BA ’69), who has served as a charter alumnus on the SFU Alumni Association Board of Directors for the past two terms. “In 1965, we were all full of vigour and hope for the future.”

When Holter began studying commerce and economics in her third year at SFU, there were only three women in her classes at the time—a stark change from recent years, including in 2014 when the SFU Beedie MBA program saw women outnumber men for the first time.

“So much has changed, and it’s like a little city up there now,” says Holter. “Back when we first started, everyone hung out at the only cafeteria under the concourse steps, and we’d sneak into the Cariboo Hotel by Lougheed Mall because there was no campus pub.”

An unforgettable student experience

George Bartel

There’s a saying, “If you can remember the 60s, you weren’t there.” For many charter students who lived through times of turbulence and revolutionary change during SFU’s early days, this rings true. However, several memorable “SFU firsts” have also persisted—digging out your car from under the mud after rainfall, dancing to rock band Jefferson Airplane and attending the first Shrum Bowl at Empire Stadium in 1967. Today, SFU is looking at putting the final touches on its own stadium atop Burnaby Mountain, where the campus has seen significant growth. At the time of opening, however, many buildings were not yet ready.

Bartel, who replaced Holter as the charter alumnus representative on the SFU Alumni Association Board of Directors on May 27, recalls walking through plywood tunnels to get from the library to the theatre. He also vividly remembers the coming of the “hippie” cultural movement on Burnaby Mountain, where blue jeans and long shaggy hair became a campus phenomenon much to the dismay of mainstream media and the public.

“As charter students, we were all on this new adventure together and in the same state of not knowing what lay ahead,” says Bartel. “It was a journey of discovery and no one was ready for what we did. I think a great camaraderie was built out of that.”

The importance of beginnings

To commemorate the major events of the academic year, a group of charter students headed by the Wong brothers—Stan, Fred and Ed—produced two school yearbooks for 1965-66 and 1966-67 with the sponsorship of the Simon Fraser Student Society. The third yearbook was discontinued by the Student Council due to cost, and there was never another.

Bartel fondly recalls the Wong brothers and the one time he ran against Stan to become president of the Simon Fraser Student Society—Bartel came in second. “We all have this bond in starting this school,” he says. “Stories are everything, and we’ve got stories.”

A Charter Committee of 11 students, led by Holter in her role on the Alumni Association, was developed to honour these stories and create opportunities for charter alumni to connect. Events like the Charter and Early Years Reunion, which took place in summer 2020, have been held online due to COVID-19, but an in-person reunion is already being planned for when it’s safe.

As Bartel starts his term on the Alumni Association Board of Directors, his hope is to reunite more charter students to rekindle social connections, share stories about their university days, and also involve older students in providing input that could help shape the university and create value for future students and alumni. Holter will continue to work with Bartel as a member of the Charter Committee.

To understand how SFU grew into the vibrant, forward-thinking institution that it is today, it’s important to look back to its roots and how the university forged a name for itself during an era of unforgettable change. As Hugh Johnston writes in Radical Campus, which tells the story of the founding years of SFU, “the beginnings are worth our attention.”

If you are an SFU charter or early years alumni (registered between 1965-1968), our charter alumni want to get in touch with you! Stay connected with other charter alumni by joining the SFU Charter and Early Years Alumni & Students Facebook group and ensuring your contact information is up-to-date. While COVID-19 is in effect, please watch for digital opportunities to interact with other charter and early years alumni. We plan to continue our development of an in-person reunion once it is possible to do so.