Early Alumnae Helped Break Old ‘Habits’


05/04/2018

Alumnae who enrolled those first few years said they were welcomed, challenged, and supported.

When women began to attend St. Ambrose as full-time students in the fall of 1968, it marked a change in the university's long-standing history as an all-male institution. Alumnae who enrolled those first few years said they were welcomed, challenged, and supported; and they highly value their Ambrosian experience, friendships and education.

Kathy Williams '72 attended a large co-ed high school and was very comfortable being one of the first female students at St. Ambrose in 1968. As she sat in Rev. Herman Strub's class, however, she realized some changes would require a bit more time to process.

"Fr. Strub had a habit of saying, 'You are all good men.' And to that I would respond, 'Thank you, Sister,'" she said, with a laugh. "He wasn't doing it intentionally, but out of habit."

Williams said she always felt accepted by her male classmates. In fact, she bonded with many, finding a community of supportive peers and a campus open to discussion and different opinions. "I never felt unwelcomed or challenged because I was a female. I felt challenged because I was an English major and because I was conservative in a very liberal time," she said.

Paula (Laird) Raney '72 also was one of the first full-time female students. She was drawn to St. Ambrose by a partial scholarship and its strong engineering and physics programs. "It was interesting; I would be in class and suddenly realize I was the only woman," she said.

Yet Raney never felt uncomfortable.

"The students in the engineering program were great. My classmates were very helpful," she said, "and the faculty was tremendous. They made sure you were successful and understood the material, and if not, they invited you to stop by their office to get extra help.

"It was not only the faculty and my peers, the whole campus was welcoming," she said.

Christine (Krumdieck) Shelton '73 enrolled in 1969 as a commuter student, but at mid-semester decided to move into the brand new, female-only residence hall, South Hall (now known as Cosgrove Hall). She said it was built with an amenity the male residence halls lacked-a full, shared bathroom for every two rooms.

Shelton said she and the other estimated 50 women who lived in South Hall that first year were envied and even teased a bit by their male peers.

"Everyone thought we were the cream of the crop," she said. "But we were very well accepted by the male students." The same was true of the faculty. "We were treated as equals, and we were respected and valued," she said.

Moving into South Hall strengthened Shelton's ties to St. Ambrose. "Living in the dorms was a much different experience than when I was a commuter student because there was such a sense of community. I saw the same women day after day," she said.

As her social circle grew, Shelton formed lifelong bonds with some of the women she met in South Hall as well as her male classmates, many who were seminarians. They challenged and supported each other during a time of great debate about the Vietnam War.

"I liked going to college. I liked the academic growth. But the difference in me as an individual came out of those friendships. I believe I am the woman I am today because of the community that supported me," Shelton said.

Helen Schwartzhoff '75 agrees. "Something very special happened to me at St. Ambrose."

Schwartzhoff enrolled in the fall of 1971 as an art major. She lived on the fourth floor of South Hall and Shelton was her RA. They became close friends and part of a group of Ambrosians who continue to meet once a year and spend a week together.

Schwartzhoff said it was at St. Ambrose that she realized the world was changing; women were no longer expected to be lifelong homemakers and they weren't being sent to college to find a husband. She was there to gain an education that would support her throughout life, and she changed her major to education.

At one point, she joined a women's group that met in South Hall. "I remember going to the dorm room, and the women who were sitting on those twin beds are still my friends today," she said. Schwartzhoff also got involved in social justice activities and the peace movement and gained a wealth of experience. "It was a great time for liberal arts education and I had the ability to explore many different things," she said.

"St. Ambrose was a great community and I felt supported as a woman on campus."

–Dawn Neuses '94

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