Mary Washington College in the 1930's

The Student Experience


“Virginia Library 1932.” University of Mary Washington Special Collections Library. (accessed February 3, 2012).

At the beginning of this decade when the school was still the State Teacher’s College, the curriculum was very specific to producing teachers. Each department’s curriculum centered on the field but mainly on how to teach the subject. As an example, in the art history and art department, the students would focus part of their time on the material but then also on how to teach their future students the ability to draw and color. There were some departments that did seem to be more focused on a liberal arts curriculum, perhaps foreshadowing the change to come to the school. In the Biology department, the syllabus focused on subjects and the material more than how to teach it.

After the change in the school in 1938 (please see link on the side of the blog for more information on this change), the curriculum began to change and in fact the school seemed to become harder for the students, or at least that is what Dr. Combs proposed and hoped. These girls would now be working for a bachelor’s degree if that is what they desired. This meant a change to the program for each program. Of course, there were still the classes that emphasized teaching because that was still one of the main professions for women during this time.

“Program Card.” University of Mary Washington Special Collections Library. (accessed March 15, 2012).

Even with this change, the girls would still not have much freedom in terms for choosing their route to graduate. In his proposal for the bachelor’s degree, Dr. Combs planned out majors and minors that could be taken together and possible schedules for the students to take. Even though, these girls were very lucky to be able to be in a higher education institution, they were still being led through it and given guidelines on how best to earn their degree. They had many more requirements to complete because they had to declare a major and then one or two minors that were similar to that major. For example, if a student picked English than she must choose History, French, or Latin to minor in. History majors would also be English, French, Latin, or Science minors. These girls would work hard and were expected to work hard in the classroom and achieve greatness once they graduates and they had a great faculty to help them through it.

“Application for Admission.” 1930-1931 General Catalog of State Teachers College. University of Mary Washington Special Collections Library. (accessed March 15, 2012).

The faculty in the 30’s might be one of the most famous groups in Mary Washington history because they are many of the namesakes of the buildings that are on campus today. The dynamic of the professors at the school was very broad. There was about an even number of male to female professor and the amount of their education ranged, however, most would have their PhDs. Although we will never know what they were like in the classroom, most of the professors taught for many years and held good communication with other staff members and their students. Many of the faculty lived on campus along with the students which would have created quite interesting atmosphere and relationships between student and teacher that could not be understood too well today.  These were some of the most important people shaping these young girls lives. There were good examples for how far these students could go because so many had high degrees no matter their gender and subject.

Distinguished Alumni

Barbara Skidmore Sheehan-Class of 1935

"Barbara Skidmore Sheehan at UMW in 1935." Photograph courtesy of Donna Gladis.

Barbara Skidmore Sheehan was born and raised in Arlington, Virginia.  Her father worked in the government and was able to support Barbara in seeking a higher education.  She chose to come to Mary Washington at the age of 18 because she wanted to get a teaching degree at a school that was close to home.  She graduated in 1935 with a degree in education and she pursued a career in primary school.  Mrs. Sheehan taught first grade from 1935 until 1945 when she decided to focus on raising a family.  She has many fond memories from when she was a student at Mary Washington, which was recorded in an interview conducted on March 1st, 2012.  The 1930s group was able to come up with questions to send to Donna Gladis, class of 1968 and daughter of Mrs. Sheehan, who then interviewed Barbara in person.  The attachment for the question and answer information can be found here:

Ruby Lee Norris-Class of 1936

UMW Alumni Project, "Ruby Lee Norris Yearbook Photograph." Alumni, Item #58 (accessed February 28 2012, 9:38 am)

Ruby Lee Norris was born into a family of teachers and raised in the Chesapeake Bay/Rappahannock River area in Middlesex County, Virginia.  From an early age, she knew that she was born to teach and decided to enroll in State Teacher’s College (later became Mary Washington College) in 1932 when she was 16 years of age.  Despite being affected economically by the recent Great Depression, Ruby Lee was able to attend school by earning a third of her annual tuition through a working scholarship.  She graduated from State Teacher’s College in 1936 with a degree in education and she began teaching at the high school level in a nearby county.  Her work as a teacher opened up opportunities for her to become a writing consultant for multiple counties in Virginia.  This job sparked her interest in writing where she made a name for herself.  In 1986, Mary Washington College recognized Ruby Lee Norris as a distinguished alumnus for her life’s achievements.  The UMW Alumni Group conducted an interview with Ruby Lee in 2008 where she talks about her time at Mary Washington and what campus life was like back in the 1930’s.  The link to the interview can be found here:



“Commerce Class 1938.” University of Mary Washington Special Collections Library. (accessed February 3, 2012).

There were eight different curriculum paths women could choose from. The first two were only two-year programs and the rest were four-year. Unlike the curriculums of today, during the thirties students years were specifically planned for them; they couldn’t choose to take a class during their second year when the curriculum states that they must take it during the first year. The four year programs were mainly for principals, specializing teachers (music, home economics, health etc.), and for commercial teachers. It is interesting that physical education and health teachers needed more education than just an average teacher when these days those teachers are considered to be the least prestigious teacher positions.

One of the focus points while going through the sources was classes that were offered that would seem strange for a college or university to offer now. “Home Economics” was something women could major in, in the 30’s.  Some of the classes for this specific major seemed strange. Here’s a list of a few that are all exactly the names found in the bulletin that haven’t been abbreviated: Penmanship, Shorthand, School Hygiene, Bookkeeping, Games, and Swimming for Town People. It seems strange in todays’ standards that an entire semester could be devoted to penmanship or school hygiene without seeming elementary.

“Fredericksburg Students Study Virginia Water Power.” Scrapbook of Mary Louise Carter. University of Mary Washington Special Collections Library. (accessed March 14, 2012).

One thing that was intriguing was the fact that the letter grade “E” was given out. An “’E’ denotes that the work is conditioned. If conditions are not made up in the next quarter of residence the grade automatically becomes an ‘F’.” What I took from this was that it was an incomplete, which is rarely given out even these days.

“Grades of Mary Louise Carter.” University of Mary Washington Special Collections Library. (accessed March 14, 2012).

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