Mary Chapin was on the verge of dropping out of school. Her father, the family’s provider, had died in a fire at Ford’s Theatre and she had no way to pay for her last semester.
As one of the first 13 women admitted to the Columbian University – what is now known as GW – Chapin, a student in the 1890s, wanted to graduate. Like many students today, though,she could not afford tuition. Fortunately, other female students rallied for Chapin’s cause, created a group called Columbian Women and raised enough money for Chapin to finish school.
That group still exists today as scholarship and networking organization for students, alumni, faculty, staff and wives of staff members at GW. Every year Columbian Women gives out approximately 15 scholarships ranging from $5,000 to $10,000, worth a combined value of $100,000, with the same purpose as the original members had in 1894: to help female students attend GW.
Minnie Harmon, who received a scholarship from 1984 to 1986, began her undergraduate degree at GW as an adult working part-time. During the last two years of her degree, The Columbian Women scholarship allowed her to stop working and focus on her studies.
“I would not have been able to finish my degree,” without the scholarship, Harmon said .
The organization’s endowment fund – the group has been independent from the University since the 1980s – subsidizes the scholarships but Columbian Women host three major events each year to both raise money and increase a sense of community.
Current president Elizabeth Milito said “the mission is two fold, [to] advance women at GW through annual scholarship awards and foster friendship and networking among women of GW.”
Columbian Women also strives to support intellectual feats. They even funded a portion of Marie Currie’s original famed radioactivity experiment.
Each fall members and current scholarship recipients are given a chance to interact at an annual luncheon and an annual meeting is held every June.
“Current members are encouraged to spread the good word about The Columbian Women to associates, friends and others. We also have a Facebook page, are mentioned in the GWU Web site, and have a seat on the [George Washington Alumni Association] Board of Directors,” Milito said.
Famous members of Columbian Women include Mrs. Henry Grattan Doyle, the first woman president of the D. C. Board of Education, Mabel Nelson Thurston, the first woman to serve as associate editor of the nationally popular magazine, Margaret Truman, wife of President Harry Truman, and Julia Marlowe, an actress.