by Meghna Melkote
Meghna Melkote is a rising sophomore from Scranton, Pennsylvania majoring in Political Science and Philosophy and minoring in Music. This is her first summer working with the Race & Racism Project as a member of Team Archive. She is involved with the Mock Trial and Debate teams, performs in chamber music ensembles, is a member of the Phi Alpha Delta Pre-Law Fraternity, and is a content curator for public history platform bunkhistory.org.
One of the first things a student at the University of Richmond hears during orientation week is in which college they are placed. Students are selected into either Richmond College (historically a men’s college) and Westhampton College (historically a women’s college but, in the modern age, moving away from that label and moving towards “the support of underrepresented genders”, as it explains on its website. This includes women, transgender individuals, nonbinary, and gender non-conforming individuals). The University of Richmond operates under a coordinate college system, which historically has played a significant role both in academics, residence life, and social life. While both Westhampton College and Richmond College have long, separate (although intertwined) histories, the legacy of the gender-separated campus stays in place even in recent years. It wasn’t until 2002, in fact, that students crossed the lake that used to separate men and women and were no longer separated by gender. In Fall 2017, freshman dorms became co-ed. And currently, Richmond College and Westhampton College operate different student governments, honor councils, and student conduct councils with different rules and procedures. Additionally, a large number of orientation events are still separated by college, with Richmond College and Westhampton College attending lectures at different times, and participating in college-specific activities. As a first-year student especially during the first week of college, I felt the legacy and the weight of the coordinate college system significantly impacted my college experience (I’m hard-pressed to discern whether for better or worse, but the gender-segregated orientation definitely impacted how I interact with first-year men).
It’s clear to me, at least, that the coordinate college system and their accompanying traditions (Ring Dance, a dance at the Jefferson hotel celebrating Westhampton College students becoming upperclassmen; Proclamation, and Investiture, where Westhampton College and Richmond College students sign the honor code), are deeply enshrined in University history and culture. Applying to Richmond, however, the presence of the coordinate college system is remarkably under-emphasized. In fact, I didn’t even know this system existed until I arrived at orientation and it was immediately a critical factor in my college experience. Admittedly, my knowledge of university history before I applied and before I arrived was spotty at best, outside of knowing the historical legacies surrounding the city’s namesake–the capital of the confederacy. However, even after what I thought was thorough perusal of admission material, it became clear that the coordinate college system is deemphasized in University marketing and communications, but emphasized in student life.
Searching through the Race & Racism Project website, I drew my search to discussions of coordinate college history (specifically, as a member of Westhampton College, Westhampton College history). One of the most fascinating exhibits I discovered were articles about the Women’s Lifestyle Committee. Described as a “student organization created with the goal of helping Westhampton women achieve the ideal of femininity at the time”, its magnum opus centered around a week called “February Follies”, which was a week long event featuring a series of workshops designed to help “men and women receive a better understanding of their positions in society”.
There were two things I found particularly interesting about this: the goal of February Follies, and the student government involvement. The goal of February Follies was to “take the place of sororities” after the “recent issue over sororities”. It doesn’t explain what the “recent issue” was, but it seems that there was some sort of criticism or push back against Greek life during the time this was happening. It’s interesting to see division on this subject even going 40 years back. The second aspect on this committee was its student government funding: while the Lifestyle Committee featured four men and five women (representative of, at the time, both Westhampton College and Richmond College), they received $1500 dollars from the Westhampton Student Government and raised $850. There is no mention of the Richmond College Student Government Association contributing to this fund. This raises the question: how different were the functions of the different student governments at the time?
It’s clear that Westhampton College and Richmond College, even today, still maintain robust legacies on campus. This exhibits shows a reinforced ideal of what Westhampton College used to represent and support in its programming; and it shows that it has a gender-segregated history that cuts much deeper than is represented on modern day University programming.
I didn’t know about the coordinate college system before I came to Richmond; so when it became a central part of my life, it changed my perception of life at Richmond. While I don’t mind some of the traditions, personally, I recognize that some of these events may be isolating for those who don’t conform to gender norms. I also recognize that separating students by gender identity from orientation does not inherently lend itself to healthy social interaction between genders. For something that is so influential in both the social and academic spheres of college, I would’ve expected it to be more highly displayed in the admissions process. After all, if it’s a source of pride, why not emphasize it?