“The First, The Few: Pioneers and Pathmakers Panel” sheds light on the experiences of the first girls at St. Andrew’s
As the student body, faculty and staff, and a distinguished group of women gathered in the Chapel, the energy quite literally buzzed in the air—the backup generator was up and running after a campus outage due to a storm.
Yet the eagerly anticipated “The First, The Few: Pioneers and Pathmakers Panel” went on despite the challenges, launching the school’s 50th anniversary of coeducation celebration and Homecoming 2023. Moderated by Louisa Zendt ’78 P'05,'09 and featuring a few of the women who attended the school in the first and early years of coeducation, these trailblazers touched on the academic, social, and extracurricular lives they led at St. Andrew’s, which helped pave the way for future generations of Saints women.
When panelist Louise Dewar ’75 came to St. Andrew’s the fall of 1973, the first year of coeducation, she said to herself, “I will graduate summa cum laude.” But she found academics at St. Andrew’s wasn’t a walk in the park.
“It was like getting hit with a shovel,” Dewar told the crowd. “It was certainly the hardest academic things I ever did. It took me a full year to get to understand what was expected of me, to understand how to study, to understand how the classes ran. And there were a lot of elements of that, being … just one girl in a class with 10 boys. Sometimes that worked out to our advantage. Sometimes it didn't.”
Dewar and her fellow panelists emphasized that the support of numerous faculty members in and out of the classroom made it possible to not only deal with the normal challenges of high school, but the unique difficulties that confronted the girls as the first women at a historically all-boys school. The faculty name that came to mind for Dewar, panelist Valerie Klinger ’76, and panelist Chesa Profaci ’80 was Nan Mein, the beloved first female faculty member of St. Andrew’s.
“I don't know that I can do justice to Nan and her influence on all of our experiences, both boys and girls, as well as on coeducation,” said Profaci, who also serves as St. Andrew’s director of alumni engagement. “Nan was self-assured, she was assertive, she was even intimidating. She stood up for herself and we watched her. And as girls, we modeled that.”
Socially, Klinger said that despite the few in the Saints community who resisted coeducation, she felt welcome from the moment she stepped on campus—though she did see boys peeking through the windows in fascination during move-in day as they sought to catch their first glimpses of the girls.
“Was I nervous the first day? No,” Klinger said. “Too much of a whirlwind. Everybody was just excited to see us and we stuck together a lot in [those] first couple of weeks.”
The friendships that formed amongst the first girls have stayed strong 50 years later. And many of their bonds and memories were formed through St. Andrew’s athletics program. After the panel, the panelists and their peers from the early years of coeducation gathered to further relive Saints sports memories by perusing through old athletics memorabilia at the Celebration of Coeducation exhibit in the Old Gym.
Klinger recalled during the panel her time rowing crew with Dewar and the other first girls. At the end of the year, members of both the girls and boys crew teams were presented with prizes—the boys with an oar, and the girls, a pin.
Klinger said that years later, she returned to campus to cheer with Dewar at the Diamond State Regatta. Dewar and Klinger, to their surprise, were finally presented with the oars they deserved.
The women said that their time at St. Andrew’s—the challenging, joyous, and everything in between—has shaped the rest of their lives and careers by giving them a sense of confidence and adventure.
“So even though we were supported at St. Andrew’s … it was somewhat from a distance,” said Profaci. “You kind of made your own way and figured it out, and that gave you confidence and you knew you could do [anything you wanted to].”
The panelists engaged with students as they answered questions about navigating male-dominated spaces, dealing with the pressure to be exceptional, and other challenges that today’s young women may relate to. Though these women created the platform in which other students, faculty, and leaders at St. Andrew’s could thrive, they said that at the time, they just felt like regular high school students.
“I did not feel like I was a brave pioneer,” said Zendt. “But I immediately felt safe, and I immediately felt that I was really, truly heard.”