The State Normal and Industrial School for Women opened in 1908 on a small plot of land set aside for practical instruction of Virginia’s young women. But, given its location in the heart of historic colonial America, the name was changed to Mary Washington College in 1938, to honor George Washington’s mother—and to this day, is the only co-ed public college in the U.S. to bear the name of a secular woman.
Mary Washington served as the University of Virginia’s sister school between 1944 to 1970, and the two schools shared resources and faculty while splitting men and women between UVA and MWU’s campuses. After UVA went co-ed in 1970, Mary Washington followed suit, admitting its first men and declaring institutional independence in 1972. The school spent the latter half of the 20th century building an extensive slate of graduate and professional degree options, earning its official university status from the Carnegie Foundation and adopting its new name (University of Mary Washington) in 2004.
UMW may not have been around to experience the Civil War, but its main campus was—Marye’s Hill, where the school is located, was an important landmark in the Battle of Fredericksburg in 1862. Nearby Sunken Road (which serves as UMW’s northeastern border) and Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Parks are all key locales in American history. Campus architecture tries to preserve these historic surroundings and is modeled after the neoclassical, Jeffersonian style associated with nearby UVA. The campus itself is fairly compact (if a bit steep when heading uphill), but the carefully-plotted construction and plentiful green space gives the layout a spacious feeling.
UMW’s history as a women’s college is apparent in the names of several buildings, which honor famous women in American history: Frances Willard Hall, Ann Carter Lee Hall, and Martha Jefferson Randolph Hall. While most undergrads live and go to class on the strip of red-brick buildings lining College Avenue on the Fredericksburg campus, the nearby Stafford campus features contrasting high-tech accommodations for UMW’s graduate and professional students.
Downtown Fredericksburg is within walking distance of UMW’s campus. Depending on which student you ask, the city offers either a cozy collegiate atmosphere in the old part of the city or a sleepy town with little to do on the weekends. Unlike some traditional college towns, Fredericksburg’s history far outdates that of UMW, so, except for a few ice cream shops, taverns, and stores, there’s no distinct college set-up for students to explore.
The small-town atmosphere doesn’t deter people from heading downtown when nothing’s happening on campus or to check out concerts at The Loft (a hidden gem, according to students), but students generally prefer to do their partying on campus or at fellow students’ houses nearby—which does locals the favor of keeping the after-party out of their hair. Many of the attractions in town stem from its colonial and Civil War history, but students still find it a welcome break. For more city-oriented students, several major Virginia urban centers are a car ride away; for those craving the outdoors, there are more than a few national parks and historic battlegrounds of which to take advantage for hikes, picnics, or just hanging out.
Many of UMW’s long-held traditions fell by the wayside after the school went co-ed, but one of the most strangely titled, Devil Goat Day, is still going strong. What started as a junior-senior rivalry in the 1920s (with the juniors adopting the goat as mascot and seniors the devil) has evolved into a day-long festival held in April featuring music, games, food, and inter-class competition.
A much newer tradition is the Spirit Rock, placed between the Woodard Campus Center and Willard Hall since September 2001. The 20-ton hunk of granite is painted and re-painted with whatever messages students have to share, whether about charitable events, birthdays, or just to celebrate a new can of paint. The fall formal, campus-wide scavenger hunt, and Rocktober food and music festival are other modern replacements for UMW’s traditions that have fallen by the wayside (like May Day and the Daisy Chain).
Like several other Southern schools, UMW also has its own deeply entrenched Honor Code. The multiple-page document deals with all aspects of campus and classroom activities and is taken very seriously by the students who sign it and those who serve to enforce it.
Elizabeth Edwards (attended) is an attorney and wife of US Senator John Edwards.
Judy Muller (1969) was a former ABC correspondent and reporter and a former Nightline anchor.
Nan Orrock (1965) is a former state senator representing Georgia's 36th district.
Judge Reinhold (1979) is an actor who has appeared in movies such as Beverly Hills Cop and Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
Karen Olsen Beck (1955) is the former First Lady and ambassador for Costa Rica.
A lack of unified school spirit doesn’t keep the UMW Eagles from excelling in the Capital Athletic Conference, a Division III league for smaller schools in the Virginia/DC area. Since its inception, the program has sent more than 100 students to All-American rosters. There are 22 varsity teams in total—ten for men and twelve for the ladies, but, because of UMW’s all-women legacy, there’s no football program to rally school spirit. Nevertheless, UMW outshone similarly-sized Division II and III Virginia schools by claiming the best overall athletic record in 2008.
UMW students may not be the tailgating type, but they’re one of the most athletic schools in the country, according to a recent survey by Men’s Fitness magazine. Club and intramural sports are fairly popular and even successful, with the women’s rugby team competing in the national Div II and III tournament for the fifth time this year. Other popular club teams include tennis and synchronized swimming.
UMW regularly fields top-ranked debate teams. Current CEDA and National Debate Tournament rankings each place the school in the top 20 nationally.
The Carmen Culpeper Chappell ’59 Centennial Campanile was donated for the school’s 100-year celebration. The bells can be heard ringing over a mile away.
Mary Bell Washington, mother of George Washington, lived in Fredericksburg from 1772 until she passed away in 1789.
Students and visitors to UMW report being blown away by the beauty of campus and its facilities—-with the exception of the dorms. On the outside, the six residential halls set aside for first-year residents and related support systems (Alvey, Custis, Jefferson, Mason, Russell, and Virginia Halls) are beautiful, with red brick and white pillars. Inside, however, rooms are small, cramped, and hot, according to students. Each hall has its own TV lounges, laundry and vending machines, and study spaces.
Ten residential buildings are reserved for upperclassmen who choose to remain on campus: Arrington, Ball, Bushnell, Framar, Madison, Marshall, Randolph, South, Westmoreland, and Willard Halls. They vary between all-women and co-ed and offer a variety of living arrangements, from single rooms to suites for four or more. Sophomores can elect to live in UMW’s Second Year Experience Community, where they participate in group activities, sessions, tours, and lectures, and are eligible for certain opportunities on-campus and in Fredericksburg. On-campus residents have the advantage of being a quick walk away from their classes, but buildings are quite old (Arrington, the most recent, was built in 1993) and offer sparse amenities beyond the standard-issue communal kitchen outfits and occasional ping-pong table. Worst of all, according to students, is the lack of air conditioning to combat the swampy Virginia heat.