SMWC celebrates 170 years of women's education

October 20th, 2010 | SMWC

Celebrating 170 years of excellence.
Celebrating 170 years of excellence.

Before women secured the right to vote, before the Pony Express ran its first mile and even before the invention of the electric light bulb, Saint Mother Theodore Guerin braved the wilderness in Indiana to establish an academy dedicated to the education of young women. The academy, now known as Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, is celebrating 170 years of overcoming enormous odds to continue its commitment to women’s education and leadership.

Founded by the Sisters of Providence, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College (SMWC) is the oldest, premier Catholic liberal arts college for women in the United States. For almost two centuries the College has been enabling students to develop their abilities, think critically, communicate responsibly, engage in lifelong learning and leadership and effect positive change in a global society.

The story of the College’s founding has enough adventure for a blockbuster action movie wrought with challenges, danger and the triumph of the spirit. In 1840, six Sisters of Providence left their convent in France on a journey to Indiana to establish an academy for young women. Led by Saint Mother Theodore Guerin, a woman whose strength, determination and philosophy can be found in every brick, stone and heart on the College campus to this day.

During the 40 days of the stormy ocean crossing, they were robbed of a good portion of the money meant to finance the rest of their trip. They arrived in New York and traveled half a continent by train, canal, stagecoach and ferry in a foreign land where they could barely speak the language. Finally, on Oct 22, 1840, more than three months after leaving France, the women crossed the Wabash River.

In the spirit of true adventurers, Saint Mother Theodore’s journal indicates that the source of their initial disappointment upon arrival was not that they had no home– but that they did not know where they would find students. Despite this uncertainty, students came to them seeking an education even before the College’s first buildings were erected. In1846, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College was granted the first charter for the higher education of women in the state of Indiana. The college conferred its first Bachelor of Arts degree in 1899.

In the tradition of creating ground-breaking opportunities in women’s education, SMWC was the first women’s college to offer journalism courses and the first to offer degree work in secondary education, home economics and secretarial science. These programs are evidence of an early commitment to preparing women for professional roles.

“Inspired by the determination of Saint Mother Theodore Guerin, the College embraces its role as a pioneer and leader,” said Dottie King, Ph.D., interim president of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College.  “We continue to build on a shared legacy of a dedication to academics, faith and social commitment.”

As an early leader in distance education, the College introduced one of the first independent study programs in the nation, the Women’s External Degree Program in 1973. This program served adult women who needed flexible schedules to balance earning a degree, important family responsibilities and career obligations. In 2005, the College expanded access to its undergraduate distance and adult programs to men, while maintaining a firm commitment to preserving its campus-based undergraduate program for women only. Today, through the renamed Woods External Degree Program, both women and men earn college degrees at a pace that works for their lifestyles in a wide variety of majors.

SMWC’s bold vision to educate students of all ages with an appetite for knowledge is evident in the delivery of its other distance programs. Since 1984, SMWC has offered co-ed graduate programs. Current graduate programs accepting new students are Master of Arts in Art Therapy, Master of Arts in Music Therapy, Master of Education and Master of Leadership Development. In January 2010, the College launched the fully online program, Woods Online, which provides students with six majors delivered in eight-week class sessions.

“Our 170 year commemoration celebrates the College’s fascinating history, intellectual achievements, rich heritage and the promise of our vibrant future,” King added. “While the faces of our students change, the essence of the College remains the same. The focus is on preparing students to be critical thinkers, educating the whole person, respecting individuality and promoting leadership and community responsibility.”

SMWC was born out of perseverance and determination. The College’s progressive vision permeates throughout campus and the world. This vision is reflected in an innovative curriculum, supportive campus community and a distinctive pedagogy. A strong sense of empowerment is embedded in the soul of the College, which is evident in the students it attracts and in the successful alumnae worldwide, who are forever connected to The Woods.

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