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Alums of trailblazing Western College for Women gather one last time

A photo from Western College for Women's 1963 yearbook Multifaria.
Western College Yearbooks
Miami University Archives
A photo from Western College for Women's 1963 yearbook Multifaria.

When Hazel Drew left Guyana in 1962 to attend Western College for Women in Oxford, she wasn’t sure what to expect.

“This was an adventure for me because I’d never left Guyana,” she says. "I’m coming to America; what do I know about America? Not much.”

It turned out the small school in the middle of Ohio’s cornfields would change her life.

Neighboring Miami University absorbed Western College for Women — or just "Western" to students — in 1974 after it encountered financial difficulties.

The Western College Alumnae Association is holding a final reunion this weekend among the rolling hills and stone bridges still referred to as Western campus. In 2011, WCAA decided this 50th reunion would be the last for the aging graduates.

LISTEN: The fascinating history of Oxford's Western College for Women

So, Drew will be back in Oxford one more time to reunite with her fellow alums.

From Western's involvement in a watershed moment in Civil Rights history to its innovative global focus and its legacy empowering women, there’s a lot to look back on.

After the initial shock of rural Ohio, Drew found herself in the midst of an international community when she arrived on campus. About 10% of the college’s students were from outside the United States — a rarity at the time.

“My roommate was from Taiwan; I met a girl from what was then Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe,” she says. “I was like, ‘Wow, they came from further away than I came from. They’re not looking so homesick, so why am I being so homesick?’ "

Hazel Drew (then Hazel Williams) in her 1966 senior photo from Western College for Women's yearbook Multifaria.
Western College Yearbooks. Miami University Archives
Hazel Drew (then Hazel Williams) in her 1966 senior photo from Western College for Women's yearbook Multifaria.

Drew and one of her roommates, Sue Detlefsen, would stay close over the decades. Western College Alumnae Association Director Debbie Baker says those kinds of friendships were a hallmark of Western.

“It’s just amazing to me so many of them have remained lifelong friends,” Baker says. “Especially in today’s world, you don’t see that very much.”

The school opened in 1855 as a seminary. Miami University Archivist Jacqueline Johnson says its values set it apart from the vast majority of institutions for women at the time.

LISTEN: The legacy of the Freedom Rides and Freedom Summer of 1964

“Many schools for women were considered to be finishing schools,” she says. “They thought women would just go and do needlepoint and learn how to play the piano; they would just learn the basics of being a housewife. We were different. If you look in the catalogues, you’ll see math, astronomy, chemistry, Latin. It wasn’t a finishing school.”

By the early 20th century, Western had transitioned into a liberal arts college. It had a state of the art gym with an indoor pool, and a composer in residence — one of the first in the country. The 420-acre campus had its own dairy farm and plentiful gardens.

In addition to intellectual development, self-sufficiency was highly encouraged among students.

“They kept tuition low by requiring the students to do some of the domestic tasks,” Baker says. “They did a lot of things – they produced their own food.”

The school began intensifying its international focus in the 1950s, recruiting faculty and staff from across the world. Drew heard about Western from an Ohio teacher who happened to be visiting Guyana while she was in high school. She later got a glowing letter from the school's dean and an offer for a full scholarship.

Western's innovative approach largely flew under the radar for decades. But in 1964, it became the training site for Freedom Summer, a sweeping voter registration effort in deeply segregated Mississippi. Western's administration stepped up when Kentucky's Berea College backed out.

Freedom Summer and Western College made headlines after Ku Klux Klan members murdered three of the campaign's participants: James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner.

“All of a sudden, international and national attention is focused on Western College for Women,” Johnson says. “Media from everywhere are coming in because they want to know what happened to the three men.”

RELATED: Freedom Summer remembered at Miami University

Students like Drew were off campus when the trainings happened and knew little about them. But as a Black woman, she learned how prevalent racism was during the sixties.

She remembers several incidents that brought the Civil Rights struggle home.

“My roommate and I were Uptown one night, and I looked over, and I said to her, ‘Oh, the Miami guys are having a bonfire, let’s go see,” she recalls. “And she looked over and said, ‘Oh no, we don’t.’ It was the Klan.”

Like a lot of women's colleges, Western ran into difficulties funding itself in the 1970s. It tried a more experimental curriculum — one that was more self-directed that didn't include letter grades. Early in the decade, it began admitting men as well. But the changes came too little, too late. By 1974, administration came to an agreement with Miami, which folded Western College into the university.

Drew graduated in 1966, got a graduate degree in biochemistry, and landed research roles in New York City, where she lives now. But she never forgot Western, nor her former roommate Detlefsen. The two later joined the alumnae association's board and got together a few times a year before Detlefsen's death a few years ago.

“Goodness, I wish she was here,” Drew says. “I could confide in her, talk to her. But there are others who have stepped up.”

RELATED: Miami Students Push For Name Changes Honoring Freedom Summer Martyrs

Friendships like that, along with Western's contributions to Freedom Summer and social justice issues, will be front and center at the final reunion. There will also be a number of speakers and ceremoniesremembering the school's innovative global focus and its role empowering women.

Johnson says it will be a fitting sendoff for the WCAA, but it won’t be the last of Western’s influence.

She and Baker note the roughly $14 million in scholarships the WCAA has funded and the $18 million endowment it has created.

Western College transitioned into the Western College Program after Miami assumed control of the school in 1974. The university folded that program into its College of Arts and Sciences in 2010. There's also the Western Center for Social Impact and Innovationon Western Campus.

“Western College made a difference in the world,” Johnson says. “They were strong, independent innovators, and their legacy will live on.”

Nick has reported from a nuclear waste facility in the deserts of New Mexico, the White House press pool, a canoe on the Mill Creek, and even his desk one time.