A Sisterhood Across Time
Hartford College for Women’s past bridges into the future. “Being rated the number two junior college in the United States in the early 1970s by a national publication was recognition of how highly Hartford College for Women was regarded,” says Valerie Lewis, former commissioner of higher education for the State of Connecticut and 1962 graduate of Hartford College. Lewis adds, “I am so proud to be an alumna of Hartford College, which was known for being a close-knit community that challenged and supported its students—the same type of challenge and support that continues for today’s female students at the University of Hartford through The Women’s Advancement Initiative’s LEAD program.”
Hartford College for Women began in 1933 as Mount Holyoke in Hartford in the midst of the Great Depression. It was considered a “noble experiment” in which women were afforded higher education at a time when money was tight and women’s options for a college education were very limited. Although Hartford College had several name changes over the years, two truths persisted: it was well respected for its vision, goals, and commitment to academic achievement and the personal success of women; and it was unique in its focus on building a dynamic community. Its graduates went on to selective colleges.
“One of the strengths of Hartford College was that students were hand selected not only for their academic achievements but for their diversity in backgrounds and attitudes,” comments Lewis. “This diversity was sought after to help students learn from each other and was key in building a community that was unique to the Hartford College experience. Another strength was Hartford College’s commitment to women’s education, embraced especially by its staff and faculty who were known to reach out and provide extra support to students needing help in academic studies or scholarship aid.”
By the early 1990s, educational options for women had expanded exponentially. Increasingly, female students elected to enroll in the growing number of co-educational institutions. As a result, women’s colleges throughout the country experienced decreased enrollment and financial difficulties. The era of single-sex institutions was becoming a thing of the past. Due to unsustainable financial challenges of its own, Hartford College for Women affiliated with the University of Hartford in 1991. Lewis describes it as a “fortuitous coming together.”
The University of Hartford’s leaders “respected the academic standing and opportunities for women that the College provided,” says Lewis. “They had great respect for its students, faculty, and staff and were drawn to the similarities in their vision, mission, and goals.”
Despite high hopes and concerted efforts, Hartford College for Women, like many all-women’s colleges, continued to experience financial challenges as fewer female students elected to take women-only classes. After extensive analysis and with great reluctance and sorrow, Hartford College for Women ceased to be a degree-granting institution in 2003.
However, it was not the end. It was, in fact, the start of a new beginning, when Hartford College for Women Trustees and University of Hartford Regents came together to create a new focus and opportunity in women’s education—one right for the times—an education in leadership skills for women where they could be challenged and supported in the tradition of Hartford College.
Today, this program is known as The Women’s Advancement Initiative and its signature program, LEAD (Leadership Education and Development), which serves more than 100 students annually. Lewis notes, “LEAD continues the Hartford College for Women legacy of diversity, community, learning, and scholarship—with a mission to help women to be impactful and successful in their lives and their communities.” LEAD students will honor their sisterhood with Hartford College for Women with an event on June 8, 2019, to celebrate Hartford College and 85 years of educating women in Hartford.
Valerie Lewis A’62 (HCW) was assistant director and then director of admissions at Hartford College for Women from 1970 to 1984 and commissioner of Higher Education for the State of Connecticut from 2000 to 2008.