When Matthew Vassar decided to open a college for women in 1861, he went big— by erecting the largest building in the entire country.
That’s right: when it was first constructed, Vassar’s Main Building at the heart of the campus was larger than any other American building. But then, Matthew Vassar was accomplishing something big—the establishment of a college where a woman could obtain an excellent and well-rounded education in a time when few women had access to such opportunities.
Vassar has always been an educational pioneer in its dedication to academic discovery and the spirit of true independence. When it opened, it was the first college in the country to include a museum in its facilities; today, Vassar’s Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center has more than 18,000 works in its collection, including pieces by such masters as Picasso, Rembrandt, O’Keeffe, and Pollock. In 1982 Vassar became the first college or university in the world to grant an undergraduate major in cognitive science. Vassar was also the first of the Seven Sisters colleges to become coeducational, when it rejected a merger offer from Yale and instead opened its doors to male students in 1969. Vassar’s student body is now forty-one percent male, which is about the national average for a college or university.
But the exceptionality of Vassar does not lie merely in its history, but rather in its ability to balance tradition and cutting-edge modernity. In the new century, its newest additions include a Media Studies major, the Interdisciplinary Robotics Research Laboratory, and the Frances Daly Fergusson Dance Theater. Today Vassar continues to serve as a place where anything is possible.
Here’s the rundown on campus residences:
- Jewett House: At nine stories tall, newly renovated Jewett towers over the campus. Legend says that poet Edna St. Vincent Millay threw herself from the top of Jewett once but fell into a nearby oak tree and was saved.
- Davison House, Raymond House, Lathrop House, Strong House: These four quad dorms are the places to be on weekend nights. Strong is also the only all-female dorm on campus.
- Cushing House: Set slightly apart from the other dorms, Cushing provides a tight-knit dorm community behind its ivy-covered walls. m Main House: Main is at the center of campus, so it’s a convenient and happening place to live.
- Noyes House: Its unique curved shape and retro “Jetson” lounge were designed by Eero Saarinen, the architect of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri.
- Josselyn House: The first dorm at Vassar that opened with showers (1912), “Joss” has its own green stretch of lawn known fondly as “Joss Beach.”
- Ferry Cooperative House: Ferry House provides upperclassmen the opportunity to try out communal living. This cooperative housing environment is completely operated and administered by the students who live there.
- Terrace Apartments, Town Houses, and South Commons: These apartments provide Vassar seniors with a chance to move away from dorm living and toward more independent housing arrangements.
On the day I graduated from Vassar, I expected to feel miserable. After all, I was moving away from the place that had been, for four whole years, my home, and I was leaving behind the friends I’d grown to love like family. Packing up my stuff the day before had almost reduced me to tears, and so I thought, as I walked across the amphitheater to receive my diploma, that I’d start to feel a terrible sense of loss, a palpable awareness of the end of an era in my life. But among the sadness at what I was losing, among the fear of the unknown, I actually felt so much excitement, so much anticipation, and so much pride. I knew then that Vassar had really, truly prepared me for my postgraduate life; while I could look back on what I had accomplished at Vassar with a fondness and nostalgia that, even now, never seems to diminish, I could also look forward to putting the experiences I had known, the knowledge I had accrued, and the strength I had gained from Vassar to good use.
Vassar is arguably the most brilliant and beautiful of the Seven Sisters. Clearly, she is the most independent and rebellious, and the only one with enough chutzpah to turn down a marriage proposal from Yale. —Samuel L. Jackson, Commencement speech to the Class of 2004
It’s an exciting feeling, knowing that you’ve got a whole big world waiting for you, and an entire life to try and figure it out. And that’s what Vassar really gives you: the tools to navigate life, and the courage to go ahead and use them.