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Women Have Bettered Rose-Hulman in the Two Decades Since They Became Fightin' Engineers

Monday, September 14, 2015
Image shows TV cameraman filming a female student walking across campus.

Cutting it: Since entering Rose-Hulman 20 years ago, female students have led campus and professional organizations, earned top academic honors, and secured Rose-Hulman's place as the country's top undergraduate engineering college.

When women first took their seats in classrooms at Rose-Hulman in the fall of 1995, most had no idea that it took nearly 20 years for the Rose-Hulman community to embrace the concept of coed education after a 121-year history as an all-male institution.

Since entering two decades ago, women have transformed Rose-Hulman. They have guided student and professional organizations on campus, added their skills to clubs and teams, and earned many of the college's top honors, noted Julia Williams, Ph.D., a professor of English who was teaching at Rose-Hulman when the school became coed.

Most of the first female Fightin' Engineers said they never felt they were special or realized they were acting as pioneers for future women when they stepped onto campus that first autumn.

"The incredible thing about us was not our gender," says Abigail Hale, a member of that first class. "We came to Rose-Hulman because we were passionate about math and science."

Those first female students included 15 transfer students; the 95 women made up 6.7 percent of Rose-Hulman's student body. Today, they make up 23 percent of the school's student population and a quarter of the freshman class.

The new female students formed the first two sororities at Rose-Hulman: Delta Delta Delta and Chi Omega. They also became involved in clubs, organizations, and athletics. And they formed a tiny but determined women's basketball team, which competed in 1995-96 with just six players.

"We went 0-20 that year," recalled Amanda Witter, one of just two members of the team with high school varsity experience. Most of their losses were blowouts, but they practiced and played as hard as any athletic team on campus, she recalls.

Apart from a few anecdotes about professors making comments better suited to an all-male audience, the members of the Class of 1999 say, if anything, Rose-Hulman faculty and staff were "hypersensitive" to anything that might make the new women students feel uncomfortable.

"I think Rose did everything right," said Kim Henthorn, Ph.D., a member of the first freshman class who now teaches chemical engineering at the college. Everyone "tried very hard to make us feel welcome."

Nevertheless, those first women were under pressure to prove themselves, says Professor Caroline Carvill, Ph.D., an English professor who was one of several faculty members pushing Rose-Hulman to become coed.

"I really do admire that first group of women," she says. "Thanks to them, no one can argue that women can't cut it."