With the large influx of students returning this fall to GW, it is easy to take for granted the institution we know, and what exactly we are being “welcomed back” to every fall.
In 1821, the Columbian College that much later evolved into GW, first opened its doors with 30 students and three faculty members in one building. In 2010 there were 21,203 undergraduate applications alone for admission to the University.
So what happened in between? The Hatchet offers a glimpse of a GW of the past – imagine being welcomed back then, instead of now.
1861: Welcome back, in the midst of Civil War
The Army has commandeered your campus at College Hill – 3,000 men are using the water pump, running down the facilities. Professors are holding class in their own homes. D.C. is geographically in the middle of the war – cannons are visible across the Potomac, a reminder of threats from the South.
Twenty of your 155 classmates have left school due to the “disturbed condition of the country,” as the then-College-president George Whitefield Samson put it. Many more will leave to fight for the Confederacy.
GW’s first teaching hospital at Judiciary Square (also the first in the nation), which played a crucial role in caring for the wounded, is destroyed by a fire in November of 1861. Two professors who taught here later tend to President Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865 when he is shot in the head.
There is one fraternity – the Rho chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon, whose brothers fought for the South. It is the only chapter of SAE to survive the war.
Your fees: $10 for admission, $55 for tuition, $20 for room rent with servant’s attendance (no slaves allowed), $15 for fuel, $10 for furniture. Being in D.C. during one of the most historically pivotal points in history? Priceless.
1889: Welcome back to a school with women
Males: imagine attending a single-sex university, and then one year returning to find females.
The first 11 female undergraduate students were allowed to enroll traditionally in the Columbian College in September of 1889. A few other females had been non-traditionally enrolled, including Mabel Nelson Thurston, who was admitted to the Columbian College, but not permitted to attend classes, instead having to meet with professors individually.
That year, the 11 women, along with Thurston and one woman in the Corcoran Scientific School, became “The Original Thirteen.” In 2010, it’s a shame the 5,577 female students outnumbering the males didn’t start similar club, “The Original 5,000+.”
1904: Welcome back to the new George Washington University
You now attend The George Washington University instead of the Columbian College. University President Charles Willis Needham is soon to reveal a new University flag and seal to mark the permanence of a new institutional identity.
Also, this year you might find yourself reading the recently-renamed University Hatchet, instead of the Weekly Columbian, as it once was. The cover of the first volume, on October 5, 1904, was meant to feature the University’s new seal, but instead was left blank, because the seal was not yet completed.
1935: Welcome back to an atmosphere of anti-war protest
Student enrollment is down in the Great Depression, but those who do return this year are welcomed back to a politically-charged and anxious atmosphere.
World War I may have ended in 1918, but Hitler’s recent rise to power and Japan’s invasion of Manchuria, among other things, have put students on edge.
There have already been two annual nationwide student “Strikes Against War.” On April 22, 1934, you saw a demonstration on the Yard associated with the first national strike. This year, to detract from any demonstrations planned on the same date, the University held a peace convocation at an earlier date, during which classes were closed and speakers were organized.
Still, that wasn’t enough for anti-war student activists: by the end of this year there will be a third annual protest. You read a statement issued by the University that students are “perfectly free as individuals” to participate, but only off University grounds. This is the largest protest to date – 500,000 students nationwide participate in campus protests organized by the American Student Union on April 22, 1936.
1963: Welcome back to activism
It was a busy year for GW and the nation – new voting rights, anti-Vietnam war sentiments, gender equality activism and inspiring speeches, to name a few events. As a student, most likely with long hair, wearing plaid or rocking bell-bottoms, life is affected by national changes.
If you are a D.C. resident, you now have the right to vote for the U.S. president next year, thanks to the 23rd Amendment passed two years ago.
GW awarded its first athletic scholarship to an African-American, Norm Neverson, to play on the football team in March. A few months later, just down the street at the Lincoln Memorial, Martin Luther King, Jr. will give his “I have a dream” speech on August 28.
Also, this year brings the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22. All University activities were cancelled on the national day of mourning, and the University held a memorial service in honor of Kennedy’s wife, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, who graduated from GW in 1951.
1981: Welcome back in the Reagan era
Even for non-medical students, there is a certain amount of pride in returning to the school whose hospital saved President Ronald Reagan after his attempted assassination on March 30. The GW Hospital garnered national attention for its prompt treatment of Reagan’s initial shock and its successful surgery which removed the bullet that punctured his lung.
If Reagan had not survived, students being welcomed back to GW six years later would not have just witnessed him on television telling Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall.
A few years later in 1991, on the 10th anniversary of his surgery, Reagan visited GW to receive an honorary degree. At this time, he also shockingly endorsed the Brady Bill for handgun control. The bill was named after James Brady, the White House press secretary shot in the head and left permanently disabled during the Reagan assassination attempt.
Reagan had previously opposed tighter restrictions on gun ownership, even after he was shot, but said in his speech at GW that the “nightmare might never have happened if legislation that is before Congress now – the Brady Bill – had been law back in 1981.”
2011: Welcome back today!
Today, GW is the largest educational institution in Washington, D.C., and has a diverse and international student body. It is mostly concentrated on one 42-acre campus that is literally in the heart of D.C., in addition to two other campuses.
It is ranked as a top-tier university and is home to some of the nation’s most politically active students.
Graduate students outnumber undergraduates, flocking to GW for its nationally ranked graduate schools and studying areas such as law, public policy and public administration.
At one point in the past, none of this was true. Don’t take for granted the GW that we know today – years from now, students will be trying to imagine what it was like to be welcomed back to GW in 2011.