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Jun 15 2011

Spotlight on Student Leaders: Ernestine “Teenie” Nelson

Contributed by Rachel Trent

Ernesting "Teenie" Nelson
In 1944, Ernestine “Teenie” Nelson was the first woman to serve on NC State’s formerly all-male Student Council. A decade earlier, the short-lived Women’s Student Government Council had shut down after facing strong opposition from the student body. Since then, student government had remained exclusively male. Ernestine, who was a textile student and Technician reporter from the Los Angeles area, served as the Senior Class Representative to Student Council during her last year at NC State, 1944-1945. Little mention was made in student publications about Ernestine or how she came to earn this position, but it is clear that these years were a tumultuous time for the university and its student government.

In the fall of 1944, the entire senior class of NC State numbered just 43 men and women. Four years earlier, when these students arrived on campus as freshman, the university was at the highest enrollment it had ever seen , with 2,426 students challenging classroom capacities. But by 1944, many male students had been called to war and student enrollment had dropped by nearly three-quarters. There were few in the classrooms and even fewer to lead student groups, write for the student newspaper, design the yearbook, and do all the other things that make a campus hum with activity.

Facing empty classrooms, the university was selected by the War and Navy departments to accept active military personnel for technical training under the Army’s Specialized Training Programs. Naval Ensigns were trained in the technical aspects of Diesel Engineering, aviation cadets were quartered four to a dorm room, and military students marched to all their classes, including English, Mathematics, Physics, History, Geography, Military Training, and Physical Training. Although the number of military students was kept confidential, the campus noticeably swelled with the new Army, Navy, and Army Air Corps students. Professors were forced to meet the new demands: English professors were asked to teach mathematics, religion professors became physics instructors, and chemistry faculty became physics faculty. With the new military students, there were more students on campus than ever before. However, the military students were ineligible to participate in student government or extra-curricular activities, leaving the school scrambling to find student officers.

The spring before, Student Government elections had been held in March and April of 1943. Within a month of the elections, however, nearly every one of the newly elected officers had been called to service,. The candidates “were destined not to hold their offices,” wrote The Technician, “Practically every campus leader chosen in recent student elections to serve next year will answer the call.”

The Technician mentions nothing about Ernestine’s election in the fall of 1944 to serve as a representative of her class to the Student Council, yet she did serve. It was not until 1966 when the first woman, Janeen Smith, was elected as Secretary of the Student Council. The first and second woman to serve as Student Body Presidents at NC State were Cathy Sterling and Mary Beth Spina, in 1970 and 1975, respectively.

For more information on women’s history at NC State, please visit Historical State.

Sources: Technician (15 January 1943, 19 February 1943, 26 February 1943, 9 April 1943, 28 May 1943, 1 October 1943, 8 October 1943, 5 May 1944, 12 May 1944)