Renee Harris did not plan to attend an all-women’s institution when she began to apply to colleges and universities in 1995.
The former president of Mount Vernon’s Student Government Association began her freshman year at Howard University four years ago. But after touring what was then Mount Vernon College, she said she “fell in love” with the campus and its people.
“I never had any plans of attending an all-female college, but when I ended up here, I think it was the best thing for me,” she said. “It’s totally different – you can talk about things in (all-female) classes that you can’t talk about in coed classes.”
Harris said she looks back at her stay on the all-female campus with a combination of joy and sadness. She said the Foxhall campus endured some rough times when GW first acquired it but she said she feels the situation has been improving.
Students were unaware of the details of GW’s acquisition until after winter break of the 1997-’98 academic year, she said. They knew the college was receiving financial help but did not know it was a part of GW until January 1998.
Harris said the college’s uncertainty put many students on edge.
“People were upset that they weren’t being told what was going on, and we weren’t being told the truth in some instances,” she said of the transition process.
“There was animosity, but some students also realized we wouldn’t have had anywhere to go if GW hadn’t stepped in, because of the financial problems,” she said. “People weren’t necessarily upset because of the buyout but just how things took place.”
She said some students, particularly seniors, have curbed their involvement in campus activities.
“There are a lot of people here who don’t want to be here,” she said. “It’s getting better this semester, but there’s still a lot of not wanting to be involved – a lot of (Mount Vernon students) are hurt and kind of sad. When you see something slowly, but surely going away that you really loved, it takes a while to get adjusted.”
Harris said campus diversity has decreased with GW’s presence at Mount Vernon.
“There was no majority group when I first came here. It was about one-third black, one-third white and one-third international students, which was really good, because you got a chance to get to know people from all over.”
She also said she feels the campus has lost its once familial atmosphere.
“People don’t know each other anymore, which is strange,” she said. “In the past you might not have been friends with a person, but you knew their name.”
Harris said the absence of former Mount Vernon faculty and administrators on the campus has been difficult for some students because they were like extended family, often serving as mentors. Going from intimate seminar-style classes to GW’s lecture classes with more than 60 students was difficult.
“We did a lot of writing here, hardly any of our classes have multiple choice exams and the different teaching style is an adjustment,” Harris said.
While Harris said from a business standpoint she understands why GW made some changes when it took control, she said she hopes GW will be mindful of Mount Vernon’s traditions and the benefits of single-sex classes and colleges.
“I think Mount Vernon has a legacy that needs to be retained,” she said. “In the ’60s there were over 200 all-female colleges and now there are less than 60 and they are dwindling away fast.”
Harris said she sees the decision to house the new women’s center at Mount Vernon as a positive sign for the maintenance of Mount Vernon’s legacy.
But the recent announcement that an all-male residence hall will be established on the Mount Vernon campus makes her ambivalent about the future of the school.
“We want to leave some sort of legacy and make sure that students know this was not just some school that was taken over. The experiences and things that have happened here need to continue on,” she said. “Hopefully those things will remain, but I know a lot of it will be gone.”