Hours after moving to campus, about 2,000 freshmen walked through Colonial-era blacksmith and farming exhibits, shook hands with a Martha Washington impersonator and toured the historic home of the University’s namesake.
More than 20 miles from Foggy Bottom, the new students met their classmates with the Mount Vernon Estate as their backdrop – a moment University officials hope they will remember years after they graduate, especially when they are asked to donate.
They are the first class to spend their first night at GW on the historic grounds, but they likely won’t be the last. Over the past year, the University has held at least four events at Mount Vernon, and administrators say that number will grow as it looks to strengthen students’ connection to the estate President George Washington called home for 38 years.
“They’ll bond as a class, and there aren’t many days they get to do that,” Dean of Student Affairs Peter Konwerski said. “It’s a way to start to begin to talk about GW’s rich history and their experience with us in that history.”
Officials are already planning to host a blowout for George Washington’s birthday on the grounds, which Washington inherited in 1761. They will also shuttle parents to the museum for the first time this parent’s weekend and host annual athletic team retreats and biking excursions on the grounds.
It’s a unique branding opportunity that GW has started taking advantage of only recently. In June, the University chose the plantation as the launch site for its first-ever $1 billion fundraising campaign, bringing deep-pocketed donors to the estate in a yacht.
The campaign, called “Making History,” harkens back to the University’s roots in fundraising officers’ talking points and marketing materials. When officials worked on rebranding GW’s logo in 2011, they walked the grounds of Mount Vernon and were inspired by the bust of the president there.
“As we launch the campaign and we think about making history, what better place than to start at George Washington’s home, the namesake of the University,” Konwerski said. “We wear George Washington on our shirts and we think about what does ‘Raise High’ mean. And when we come to a place like this, it helps us understand who George Washington the man was.”
Mount Vernon’s chief event planner Jamie Bosket said the University has several large-scale events currently in the works but declined to give details. GW gets a discounted rate on parties there, he added, and Konwerski said donors paid for the event costs.
“History would show that GW has one of the strongest connections to the man himself, and this new relationship is the perfect way to embody that relationship,” said Bosket, an alumnus who earned a master’s in museum studies. “I think it’s wonderful to see the University embrace it.”
Students who attended Saturday’s event will be able to return to the estate at half the price of the regular $17 admission rate, and Bosket said that there are plans to create a similar discount for all GW students.
After University President Steven Knapp arrived, GW’s relationship with Mount Vernon expanded, Vice President for External Relations Lorraine Voles said.
But once he came to GW in 2007, the estate gave Knapp, who owns a 6.5-acre farm in Maryland, two sheep named George and Martha to jumpstart a tenure of strong relations between the University and the historic site.
The University then launched a weekly course, called “George Washington and his world” in 2013, which is taught at the estate’s presidential library. Knapp has also traveled there to lay a wreath at the president’s grave on Washington’s birthday.
“Our relationship with the estate evolved as he encouraged people at the University to build stronger bonds with Mount Vernon,” Voles said. “Hosting events at Mount Vernon Estate bring us closer to our founder and allows us to use his life lessons about character, intelligence and strength to tie our community together.”
At the event Saturday, assistant history professor Thomas Long gave a 20-minute lecture on Washington’s life, detailing some of the most impressive feats of the president’s two terms, including creating the first national bank – which was later declared unconstitutional – and the precedents he set for future presidents.
The estate’s George Washington impersonator even gave a toast to the students’ next four years.
Students wandered the grounds participating in a scavenger hunt with questions about exhibits that took them throughout the 500-acre estate grounds. Students who answered a certain number of questions correctly could submit their answers to win prizes such as gift cards.
Provost Steven Lerman used his short speech at the event to describe the fundraising campaign’s launch party, reminding students that the $1 billion that officials are aiming to raise will help increase the value of their degrees – but also that one day they too will be asked to pitch in.
“You will be the beneficiaries of that hard work, but today you’re here to celebrate your first night as freshmen and members of our community,” Lerman said. “You are all standing in a very special place that George Washington loved and much of his heart is linked to George Washington University in an incredible number of ways.”