Hollins 175th Anniversary

Hollins University at 175

A lot can change in 175 years. And some things can stay the same. During that time, Hollins University has gone from being Valley Union Seminary in 1842 to the strong, growing institution it is today. But, the school has retained its commitment to single-sex education, and students still climb Tinker Mountain every year on Tinker Day.

Valley Union was founded in 1842 by the Rev. Joshua Bradley, a New York minister who bought the property. At the time it had both male and female departments. Four years later, Charles Lewis Cocke succeeded Bradley and, in 1851, recommended to the board of trustees the male department be eliminated. In 1855, John and Ann Hollins gave the young school $5,000, and the name was changed to Hollins Institute. Hollins began drawing students from outside the area in 1873.

The four-year Bachelor of Arts degree program began in 1901. The institute formally changed its name to Hollins College in 1910. The English department began offering a master’s degree in creative writing in 1960 and has since produced three Pulitzer Prize winners: Annie Dillard, Henry Taylor and Natasha Trethewey. Hollins introduced the then-novel graduate program, Master of Arts in Liberal Studies in 1969, though other graduate programs began as early as 1958. Hollins became a university in 1998.

During its history, the school has endured war—including the Civil War that nearly came to its doorstep—epidemics, economic downturns, the turbulence of the 1960s and ’70s and the changing trends in education that are bringing single-sex education back into favor.

The 175th anniversary celebration began last August with the academic year and will wrap up early next month with the reunion, says Brook Dickson, executive assistant to the president.

As the anniversary year closes, Hollins has much to be proud of, according to Jeff Hodges, director of public relations. This past fall, the school saw its largest incoming first-year class in 17 years, and it is operating with no debt and a balanced budget. Both Hodges and President Nancy Oliver Gray speak with pride about the Career Compass Program, which prepares students for life after Hollins through internships, mentoring and alumnae engagement.

This academic year, Hollins has 654 undergraduate students and 174 graduate students in 10 programs. The graduate program admits male students. Dickson says Hollins’ recent growth is an indication that families see single-sex education as a “niche market.” Hodges adds that single-sex education allows the students to “find their voices and develop a level of self-confidence. It has a transformative effect.”

Hollins’ small size matters, too. Gray says a small liberal arts school gives students and faculty a “hands-on experience” which helps prepare students for continuing their education or for their careers.

Gray, who retires at the end of June, calls the Hollins community “extraordinary and unique.” She says the students and faculty are “invested in each other in a caring and civil community. The students come first.”

While English remains the most popular field of study, Gray says biology, chemistry and environmental science are right behind it, a trend she attributes to the recent emphasis on STEM—science, technology, engineering and math—for young women. To enhance its science programs, Hollins is renovating the Dana Science Building.

In her 12 1/2 years at Hollins—the average stay for a college president is six to seven years—Gray has seen many changes. She says the demographic of college-bound students is becoming more diverse and families are looking for a good return on investment for their tuition. She notes technology has vastly changed not just in the classroom, but in how students interact with each other.

“Students are growing and changing—becoming more responsible,” she says. “We need to realize that and not overreact” to social media.

As she looks back, she says she’s proud of the emphasis on career preparation. “It starts with liberal arts,” which teach students to communicate, think and solve, “to learn to learn.” She called it “one of the best preparations for the workforce.”

She says the internships, which take students around the country, the mentoring and the connections between alumnae and students are creating a “new women’s network” instead of the old boys’ network. And, she notes, they are developing strong friendships. Recent internships have sent students to New York City, Washington, D.C., Richmond, Atlanta, Chapel Hill, Cleveland and Philadelphia.

She’s also proud of the school’s emphasis on campus inclusivity.

“Everyone feels welcome and respected,” she says, adding she sees an increase in “cultural competency” on the more diverse campus.

At the same time, Hollins has kept its academic standards high. “Our faculty is first-rate, and the students are engaged.”

Gray will leave Hollins in a strong financial position. She said the school’s endowment is the third largest in the Virginia Foundation of Independent Colleges, behind Washington & Lee and the University of Richmond. She’ll also leave behind a beautifully maintained campus. Hodges says Hollins has been designated a Tree Campus USA—one of only four in Vriginia—by the Arbor Day Foundation.

While Hollins will welcome its new president, Pareena Lawrence, in July, Gray looks forward to her next chapter. She and her husband, David Maxson, plan to stay in Roanoke. She’s looking forward to being active in the community.

“This is home to us.”