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A legacy of scholarship, leadership, and service

A year ago Emerging profiled a pioneering society for women in architecture, Delta Phi. The University chapter was the largest in the country for many years. The U of M also gave birth to another pioneering design honor society, Phi Upsilon Omicron, which celebrates its centennial this year.

By Suzy Frisch

 

Bookmark, designed by Ruth Segolson (BS Home Ec '25)The field of human ecology has changed vastly during the past century. But one thing has remained constant for its students and professionals: Phi Upsilon Omicron. From its origins on the University of Minnesota campus in 1910, the National Honor Society in Family and Consumer Sciences has grown to include 34 alumni and 61 collegiate chapters with 88,000 members across the country.

 

Known as Phi U, the honor society welcomes members from a broad swath of disciplines including those in the College of Design's Department of Design, Housing, and Apparel (DHA).

 

The honor society serves multiple purposes, from providing student scholarships to developing members' leadership skills and coordinating community service projects. Each year, the University's Phi U chapter, the alpha chapter, gives away more than $40,000 in scholarships to upper level undergraduate and graduate student members.

 

These days Phi U has a lot to celebrate, including its centennial. Members from across the country gathered in the Twin Cities in late September for Phi U's biennial conclave. Speakers included College of Design dean Tom Fisher, who talked about homelessness and the future of design, and apparel design professors Karen LaBat and Elizabeth Bye, who spoke about new technology for designing wearable products.

 

"It's a very meaningful organization," said Virginia Juffer, president of the University of Minnesota alumni chapter. "It keeps me connected with the values and goals I think are important in life, which is working with other people who are engaged in education, doing research, and community outreach. It's also been professionally supportive."

 

The local chapter of Phi U faced a challenge in 2006 when the University reorganized, spreading its members across three colleges. But Phi U has continued strong, initiating its largest class of new members last year. It helps that a faculty adviser from each of the colleges coordinates the organization's activities, noted Marilyn DeLong, professor of apparel design and associate dean for research and outreach in the College of Design. "Enthusiasm [for Phi U] hasn't dwindled a bit," she said.

 

Sarah Marten, a senior in retail merchandising who serves as Phi U secretary, said, "It's great to get to know people in your field who have been in your shoes, who have gone through these classes and internships and can talk about their own experiences. It's cool that they are willing to help the students year after year."

 

Myrna Shaw, conclave cochair, said, "We stress working together on service projects that benefit the community." For example, Phi U conclave attendees teamed with the nonprofit Kids Against Hunger to assemble about 8,000 packets of food that will be shipped around the world to prevent malnutrition and starvation.

 

For Barbara Heinemann, a College of Design adviser, Phi U has been an important organization since her days as an apparel graduate student. She was attracted by the scholarships when she joined in 2000, but over the years Phi U helped her build a professional, academic, and personal community of like-minded people.

 

"Through Phi U I've met women of all ages doing all kinds of different things, who are interested in current scholarship and participating in the community," said Heinemann. "Phi U has become a really important part of my community."

 

Freelance writer Suzy Frisch is a frequent contributor to Emerging.

 

100 Years of Phi U

By Tim Brady

On February 9, 1909, 22 women from the University of Minnesota's home economics department gathered in a room at the University farm campus library to inaugurate a new organization. Known simply as the Home Economics Club when it was founded, Phi Upsilon Omicron was given its current name two years later and would grow and prosper through the next 100 years.

 

Phi U, which recently celebrated its 100th anniversary with a conclave in the Twin Cities, was the first national organization drawn from family and consumer science students. That group of 22 at the University of Minnesota comprised its alpha chapter. All of these pioneers hailed from a class taught by Mrs. Fannie Kimber Boutelle, one of the first faculty members in the relatively new home economics division of the University's College of Agriculture. Each member ponied up 50 cents and pledged to improve the curriculum in the department, to promote the social lives of college coeds, and to more diligently study home economics.

 

These relatively modest ambitions belied the depth and breadth of their intentions. Classes in home economics were a bit more than 10 years old in the College of Agriculture when Phi U was founded and had existed as a division within the college for less than that (1900). The discipline itself had become of national interest and importance beginning in the late 19th century when a group of savvy women recognized that managing a home in the modern world required science, art, and economic study.

 

The fact that the Division of Home Economics was housed in the College of Agriculture on the St. Paul campus meant that its students not only had to walk up a steep hill from the Como Avenue streetcar line "in the middle of a road which was muddy in spring and fall, dusty in summer and deep in snow in the winter," according to one history of the society, it also meant home economics students were pigeonholed by much of the rest of the University as cow belles, who were thought, inaccurately, to be primarily farm women. In fact, a majority of 1909 home economics students came from the Twin Cities.

 

Phi Upsilon Omicron was organized in part to counter these stereotypes. At a meeting just a month after its founding, the group made a list of subjects worthy of study, including "psychological questions dealing with the modern attitude of women, environment, heredity, statistics, effect of women becoming wage earners, comparison of women today and a quarter of a century ago, evolution of women."

 

They also organized a variety of service-related activities in their first few years of existence. These included taking charge of "Better Baby Week" plans in a Minneapolis department store as part of a citywide program to focus attention on the proper care of infants, teaching home economics classes at area settlement houses, creating an annual home economics scholarship program, and preparing a series of talks for the brand new medium of radio.

 

Phi U officially established itself as an honor society, requiring proven scholarship for its members, and took its Greek name in 1911. A house on campus had been rented the year before and it quickly became the center of Phi U activities. A publication called The Candle was founded to supply members and alumni with the latest society and professional news.

 

And in a matter of three or four years, the society began expanding as alpha chapter members made contact with a number of universities across the country. North Dakota State University became the beta chapter of Phi U in 1914 after half a dozen members of the Minnesota chapter traveled to Fargo to install the newest Phi U's. It was said that the Minnesota group crowded into the lower berth of a Pullman car, practicing the club rituals for the length of the trip.

 

The ceremony soon became more common as the universities of Ohio State, Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho established chapters in the 1910s. Phi U kept growing and spread across the country through the 1920s, '30s, and '40s. Since the early 1920s, Phi U has offered a variety of scholarships under a host of different names to students across the country. Alumni as well as college chapters were formed. The University of Minnesota's alpha alumni group was founded in 1913.

 

Throughout the years, Phi U and its members have mirrored the rapid changes in society that came with the Great Depression, World War II, and the postwar era. As families became more urbanized and consumer-oriented, so too did professional home economists. During the 1960s and '70s, Phi U likewise reflected the world around it, acknowledging changing gender roles, for instance, by opening Phi U membership to men in 1972.

 

Over the past 100 years, the organization has remained dedicated to its original propositions of scholarship, professionalism, and lifelong promotion of family and consumer sciences. Long gone are the cow belles struggling up the windswept hill toward the College of Agriculture.

Potential members are now drawn from three separate University colleges: the College of Design through its Department of Design, Housing, and Apparel; the College of Food, Agricultural, and Natural Resource Sciences through its Department of Food Science and Nutrition; and the College of Education and Human Development.

 

Tim Brady is the author of Gopher Gold: Legendary Figures, Brilliant Blunders, and Amazing Feats at the University of Minnesota.