Mount Vernon women maintain traditions despite transitions

Mount Vernon College used to sit tucked away peacefully in the northwest corner of the District since its founding more than 120 years ago.

But since GW took control of the college in October 1996 some of that tranquillity has been lost and a busier, more dynamic campus rose up in its place.

This summer marked the end of an 18-month transition for Mount Vernon and one of the most tumultuous periods in the history of the school. No longer an independent, all-women’s college, the campus is now known as The George Washington University at Mount Vernon College. It serves as a satellite and a supplement to the Foggy Bottom campus, but Executive Dean Grae Baxter said it retains much of the spirit of the original college.

“We have kept in a sense the legacy of Mount Vernon College alive and even enhanced it,” Baxter said. “What we have is our own new distinct identity as a living, learning and leadership community for women. I think the transition and integration into the University of this women’s-centered environment has been fabulous and extraordinarily smooth.”

Still a place for women

The centerpiece of the effort to keep the campus focused on women’s issues and women’s education this year is the Women and Power Leadership Programs – including Women in the Arts, Women in International Leadership, Women and Power in Historical Perspectives, and Women in Science and Technology. The program was piloted last year and 30 students took part. This year the program exploded to include 175 students.

“We’re very excited by the success, and we’re so happy that so many of these talented women decided to be a part of the program,” Baxter said.

Perhaps the biggest possible intrusion into the identity of the college – allowing men to live on campus – was avoided. The Community Living and Learning Center put men on a waiting list for Mount Vernon spaces in case all of the rooms were not occupied by women, but all 250 spaces available were filled, Baxter said.

New faces

Many of those 250 rooms are filled with freshmen – the first-ever freshmen to come to Mount Vernon after full incorporation with GW.

“At first I was just interested in GW itself,” said Dasha Davis, a freshman at Mount Vernon campus. “But Mount Vernon offered me a different option. It was the best of both worlds.”

Meghan Harrison, another freshman on campus, saw her options similarly. She is in the Women in International Leadership program, and so far, she thinks she’s made a good decision in coming to GW at Mount Vernon.

“The class sizes are great here,” Harrison said. “Most of the women who come here mention the class sizes.”

But the intimate nature of the campus and the small number of residents do lead to drawbacks.

“It’s really quiet here,” freshman Janice Stucke said.

“A lot of times it’s a lot quieter than it needs to be,” Harrison chimed in. “It can get too quiet.”

Even though the 26-acre tract of hilly land may seem tranquil to many of its new inhabitants, Baxter says the campus is a much busier place than it used to be. GW’s soccer teams are practicing on the athletic field at Mount Vernon, and students are moving back and forth between the Foggy Bottom campus and the Mount Vernon campus for a variety of reasons.

“Life is so enhanced by having this activity,” Baxter said. “We love the increased level of activity. It’s not just our students any more.”

Two culturesThe relationship between the Foggy Bottom campus and Mount Vernon has been unsteady at best in the three years since GW purchased the college for $6.5 million. Students living at the two campuses have never been quite sure what to think of each other.

“Between Mount Vernon and GW last year there seemed to be a lot of tension,” Mount Vernon sophomore Gitta Ghovanlou said. “With the transition, it’s been difficult because no one really knew what the outcome was going to be.”

Student Association President Phil Meisner, who will be the first SA president since Mount Vernon was fully merged with GW, thinks that the relationship between the campuses will do nothing but improve. As an SA senator last year, Meisner encountered great opposition to a Mount Vernon advisory council.

“What you had previously was two distinct cultures,” Meisner said. “There’s the Foggy Bottom culture and the Mount Vernon campus, where you have some that are still anti-Foggy Bottom. This year, you have a whole new crop of students that are basically one college, and they have one culture of thought that they share.”

Ghovanlou is not entirely “anti-Foggy Bottom,” but she and some other legacy Mount Vernon students still have problems with their situations.

“At the beginning, I wasn’t all that happy with (the relationship between GW and Mount Vernon),” she said. “Most people were unhappy. Now it’s okay. It’s not perfect. I think it’s gotten a little better.”

One community?

The differences between the two “cultures” are slowly being eroded as there is more interaction between the campuses. Facilities at Mount Vernon are being made more accessible to GW students, more courses traditionally taught on the main campus are being held at Mount Vernon, and many events are attracting more people to the campus.

“There’s more Foggy Bottom students coming,” Baxter said. “They’re coming for our famous weekend brunches, but they’re also taking more classes here. We want there to be a great deal of `back-and-forth.'”

The commuting between campuses that Baxter wants to see should also increase in the future, as there are plans in the works to bring several GW athletic programs to Mount Vernon permanently.

Meisner wants to hold some SA meetings on the campus, and he is also expanding the SA’s Web site, which should help Mount Vernon students who can’t always pop into the Marvin Center to access things like the test files. But Meisner said that it’s going to take more than simple interaction before Foggy Bottom and Mount Vernon can live in harmony.

“To really integrate, it’s going to take thinking of ourselves as one complete community,” Meisner said. “I think that we are on the way.”

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