Wilson College was founded in 1869 as a college for women by the Rev. Tryon Edwards and the Rev. James W. Wightman. The original charter was granted on March 24, 1869. Sarah Wilson, for whom the College is named, provided the initial gift for the establishment of the College.
The purpose of the college was described as an effort to provide for the education of young women in literature, science and the arts. The Oct. 19, 1870, edition of the Franklin Repository stated that the "effort will not be to cram the minds of pupils with facts, but to spend the time in development of thought so that the pupils will learn to think for themselves, and thus become leaders, instead of followers, in society."
The Hankey Center for the History of Women’s Education serves as the central resource on the history of Wilson College through the rich repository of materials and artifacts contained in the C. Elizabeth Boyd ’33 Archives. We provide support for academic programs by making the Center’s staff and resources available to the Wilson community, as well as to scholars, independent researchers and educators in the broader community.
From spring 2019 to spring 2020 Wilson College celebrated it's Sesquicentennial. It was an opportunity to celebrate our past, present and future.
This timeline offers a brief stroll through moments in Wilson College history.
Wilson College was founded in 1869 as a college for women, one of the first in the United States. The founders were the Rev. Tryon Edwards and the Rev. James W. Wightman, pastors of Presbyterian churches in nearby Hagerstown, Md., and Greencastle, Pa. They submitted plans to the Presbytery of Carlisle and received its endorsement in April 1868. The Pennsylvania Legislature granted the original charter on March 24, 1869. Miss Sarah Wilson (1795-1871), a resident of nearby St. Thomas, provided two generous donations for the establishment of the new institution. Although Wilson herself had no formal education, she recognized the importance of education for future generations of women. In gratitude for Wilson's gifts, the Trustees voted to name the new institution in her honor. Instruction at the College began on Oct. 12, 1870, after the Trustees had secured the purchase of property formerly owned by Col. A.K. McClure, a close friend and adviser of President Abraham Lincoln.
Since its inception, the College has fostered rigorous intellectual pursuits. Like other women’s colleges, Wilson has long provided opportunities for women to study and teach subjects once thought beyond women’s capabilities, such as chemistry, biology, mathematics and classical languages. President Anna J. McKeag, Wilson’s first woman president (1911-15), strengthened the College’s academic standards. The College has continued to build upon this foundation by increasing the number and kinds of course offerings, improving library resources and bringing distinguished visitors and lecturers to campus. A measure of the College’s intellectual strength is the establishment in 1950 of a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, the nation’s oldest and most prestigious academic honor society.
Since 1931, the College has recognized outstanding contributions to society by awarding honorary degrees. Recipients have included U.S. Rep. Margaret Chase Smith, Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, anthropologist Margaret Mead, musician Lili Krause, author and activist Rita Mae Brown, and news anchor Walter Cronkite.
Throughout its long history, Wilson has responded to changing times. In 1982, the College was one of the first in the region to begin offering a continuing studies program to meet the needs of a growing population of adults seeking a post-secondary education. In 1996, the College was one of the first in the nation to offer on-campus, residential education for single mothers with children. Since the program began, it has won national attention and Wilson has become the National Center for Single Mothers in Higher Education.
Today, Wilson admits men and women of all ages to enroll in its bachelor's and associate degree programs, as well as post-baccalaureate and graduate programs. To make a Wilson education available to adults, many courses are offered not only during the day, but in the evening, in summer and January Term, and at convenient off-campus sites.
Traditions That Define the Wilson Experience
Wilson’s long and proud history has led to many traditions, rituals, and symbols. While a rare few traditions have become outdated and fallen by the wayside, most of our traditions remain integral to today’s student experience. From Sarah Wilson Week in the fall to the Daisy Chain in the spring, Wilson’s traditions bring our students together all year long to strengthen and unite our campus community.
Spring Fling (May Day)
This annual ritual (originally called “May Day”) is based on the medieval celebration of spring historically popular at many women’s colleges.
Sarah Wilson Week (Dummy Rush)
Kicking off the school year, students participate in a variety of traditions including Color Wars, Bigs/Littles, dinks, and much, much more.
Odds & Evens
One of the most important traditions, Odds and Evens maintain a friendly rivalry on campus and each has their own class colors.
On the eve of graduation, the sophomore class builds a daisy chain to present to the graduating class on commencement morning. The chain is placed into the Conococheague Creek and is carried on the current, symbolizing good wishes for the graduates in their life journey beyond college.
Mascot: The Phoenix
Wilson’s beloved mascot wasn’t introduced until the 1980s to symbolize the College’s “rebirth” after its near-closing in 1979.
Although not many students still buy class rings, the Ring-it-Forward program connects current students with alums' historic rings.
The Dean of Academic Affairs rings the College bell to cancel one day of classes to allow students to enjoy nice spring weather after winter’s end.
Seniors wear white to a formal dinner composed primarily of white foods to support charity.
The Alma Mater
By 1924, the Wilson Handbook lists “’Mid the Pines and Maples”, written by Bertha Peifer ’21 and Virginia Mayer Zacharias ’20 as the “New Alma Mater” .
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