GW preserves the legacy of Mount Vernon Seminary and College through an innovative first-year living and learning community on the Mount Vernon campus.
By Ann McMaster
Uprooted frequently by career-related family relocations, Barbara Jacobs Ficklin was a bashful teen who had attended eight schools in three states by 1961 and desperately needed a stable educational environment. Fortunately, she found a home for herself at a small, selective independent high school for young women called the Mount Vernon Seminary, located on what is today George Washington University’s Mount Vernon campus.
Sixty years later, Ms. Ficklin considers her time at Mount Vernon Seminary to be transformative to shaping her future success and encourages others to help preserve this “incredible experience” for generations of women to come.
She and her husband, Bill, recently made a $1 million testamentary gift to continue the legacy of Mount Vernon Seminary that lives today through GW’s Elizabeth J. Somers Women’s Leadership Program (WLP). First-year students admitted to the WLP by competitive application live and learn together in Somers Hall in small cohorts, each with a distinct focus.
Ms. Somers founded the Mount Vernon Seminary in 1875 after requests to tutor the daughters of prominent Washington families in her home exceeded the physical space. At a time with no other D.C. educational options for girls, she provided a rigorous academic curriculum, a sense of community and opportunities for personal growth—an unwavering tradition that has continued over the years.
“I was a very shy, lost person and did not consider myself a good student at all,” said Ms. Ficklin.
The supportive seminary environment unlocked her academic and leadership potential, and Ms. Ficklin graduated cum laude four years later. She thrived on the challenging classes and the array of activities, including stints on student council, as editor of the literary magazine and president of the honor society.
“We had so many opportunities at Mount Vernon Seminary—not just to learn in small classroom settings, but also to participate and to lead in a wide variety of extracurricular activities. This meant everyone there was someone special,” Ms. Ficklin recalled. “It was absolutely one of the most important opportunities of my life.”
WLP Director Mary Buckley was instrumental in demonstrating to the Ficklins how today’s program still honors the spirit of the seminary. “It was a privilege and a pleasure to show the Ficklins how the WLP applies a modern lens to the unique challenges of developing future female leaders,” said Ms. Buckley.
The WLP cohorts today are similarly sized or smaller, with each of the four disciplines (International Arts & Culture; Globalization, Economics & Business; International Politics and Science; Health & Medicine) capped at 20 students. Everyone comes together for the weekly WLP Symposium, a seminar series on leadership featuring lectures from prominent alumni, workshops or outings to D.C. area talks and events.
“The WLP is a hidden gem,” said Donna Arbide, vice president of development and alumni relations. “This program and community continues the valuable tradition Ms. Somers began nearly 150 years ago of opening minds and opportunities for women leaders. We are so grateful to the Ficklins for their generous investment in strengthening this legacy for future generations.”
Ms. Ficklin left after graduation in 1965, not realizing her class would be among the last to receive high school diplomas from the storied institution that closed its doors a few years later. The Mount Vernon Junior College remained and was accredited as Mount Vernon College in 1976.
The all-women independent college, a verdant oasis in the hills of Northwest D.C., struggled financially and reached the brink of bankruptcy, a casualty of declining enrollment and changing times that closed many women’s schools. GW first affiliated with, then acquired, the beautiful college and campus in 1999, when it became the George Washington University at Mount Vernon. All past graduates were awarded GW alumni status. To commemorate and preserve Elizabeth J. Somers’ vision for an inclusive, supportive and collaborative community of student leaders on campus, GW established the WLP that same year.
Many alumnae from the seminary and college felt adrift, even angry, after the GW acquisition, and Ms. Ficklin was no exception. She admits harboring “more than a little resentment” and typically tossed correspondence from GW straight into the trash. “I thought the door had shut on the seminary legacy,” she said. “I simply did not realize there are so many parallels between my experience so many years ago, and how the WLP continues to support a community of women learning and growing together to find their own voices.”
Serendipitously, just as the Ficklins were updating their estate plans, she received a GW email announcing the new Women’s Leadership Program Endowment Fund created by $250,000 donation from an anonymous seminary alumna. The announcement came with an invitation from Ms. Buckley, the WLP director, to call or visit. The Ficklins eagerly embraced the opportunity.
Visiting campus for lunch and conversations with current WLP students and faculty in Post Hall (named for alumna Marjorie Merriweather Post), the Ficklins were guided around campus by WLP alumna SJ Matthews, then a junior majoring in classical studies and the newly-elected Student Association (SA) president. Ms. Matthews, known for her “Vern” tours, shared not just her encyclopedic knowledge of campus trivia and traditions with Ms. Ficklin, but also a common bond of Ms. Somers’ legacy that includes Ms. Matthews’ mother, Amy, who is an alumna of Mount Vernon College
Ms. Matthews credits the WLP for the confidence that led her to run—and win—election for SA president as an “outsider” without prior SA experience. Now a student at GW’s Graduate School of Political Management, her sights are set on higher office in the future.
“My mom once felt the same way about GW,” said Ms. Matthews. “But when she visited, she saw the campus she loved still exists, but differently.” The day WLP students arrive, the first hour of orientation is a history presentation, she added. “You see that you are new in a line of many,” she said, “and there is a great community of Mount Vernon women that came before you and who want to support you.”
The Women’s Leadership Program Endowment Fund addresses broad areas of need, including faculty support, speaker stipends, summer internships and emergency funds for WLP students.