The Spirit of Salem College: A Glimpse into the Oldest Women’s College in the Nation

 

"Salem College 01" by Erlend Bjørtvedt/CC BY 3.0 From the left is Home Moravian Church, Main Hall, and South Residence Hall.
From the left is Home Moravian Church, Main Hall, and South Residence Hall./  “Salem College 01” by Erlend Bjørtvedt/CC BY-SA 3.0

You’ve heard of Harvard, Stanford, and maybe even Ohio State University (Go Bucks!), but do you know about the oldest women’s college in the nation? It was established in 1772 by a group of women who walked over 500 miles from Pennsylvania to North Carolina. They entertained an idea that was radical for their time, which was that women should be educated the same as men. It eventually came to be called Salem College, a place of mystery, education, community, and empowerment where the word “spirit” has multiple meanings.

The college is located in the heart of Old Salem — not to be confused with the witch trials (that’s Massachusetts, not North Carolina). It was one of the places where the Moravian sect from the Czech Republic settled to flee from religious persecution. Although still possessing biases and prejudices, the Moravians were ahead of their time in accepting the value of women and practicing religious tolerance. The town construction began in 1766, and today it features trade shops, residence housing, churches, a tavern, museums, graveyards, and gardens that would excite any history enthusiast.

Germ Magazine, Jasmine Huff, attic, Salem College, professional photography
A rare photograph of Main Hall’s attic. Decommissioned furniture and decor linger up here, in one of Salem’s “ghostly” atmospheres./ Photo courtesy of Jasmine Huff.

With a historical town, it is only natural that ghost stories would be told. At Salem College, it is an unofficial tradition to speak of the spirits to the first year students. Hauntings are fabled to occur in the picturesque May Dell — an outdoor amphitheater with architecture similar to that of the Romans — and in the maze of rooms in Gramley Library. In Babcock Residence Hall, it is tradition to say “hello” to Mary — a painting of the woman the dorm was named after, which is displayed in the entrance — to avoid a curse of thunderstorms or physical maladies that comes with disrespecting her.

My friends at school experienced things like having their computers turn on unexpectedly. One person was stuck in a closet for a while, although the door was not jammed or locked. True or not, the ghost stories of the school are appealing enough for the paranormal lovers while being mild enough for those with delicate sensitivities (or scaredy-cats like me).

At the core of the college is the spirit of education. Founded on the belief of empowering women through academia, Salem College is serious about leadership. The Celebration of Academic Excellence is an important rite of passage where students have the opportunity to share their research and work with the community.

While the school offers a variety of majors and minors from the sciences to business to the arts, some programs are admittedly stronger than others. The business, history, music, and English programs are especially strong. The dance program was recently made a major, along with many other newer programs.

The creative writing department, however, has a high professor turnover rate and now has three adjunct professors and one assistant professor. While I am a proud graduate of the creative writing program and believe in the capability of the professors, I have to admit I was very disappointed at times. I was particularly frustrated when the novel writing class was cut before my first year of school. It has never been available since.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kTTTq-6wLA4&w=560&h=315]
The Fall Fest Wake Up Call by the class of 2013 featuring the Winston-Salem State University Drum Line.
Video courtesy of Jasmine Huff.

Community spirit at Salem College is particularly notable. Traditions such as Fall Fest, the Moravian Lovefeast and candlelight service, and laying flowers on the grave of Sister Oesterlein — the first teacher of Salem College — are important practices. The Honor Code, a document every first year signs, is a contract and code of ethics that students are expected to follow that allows them certain privileges, like student proctored exams and the goal of a student-run campus.There are many clubs available to students, including but not limited to multicultural, activist, academic, leadership and service, three steadfast publications, and more. There is also the big sis/little sis program that pairs upperclasswomen with their younger peers to provide a chance for “sisterhood” and mentorship. In the midst of a devout religious community, students are able to experience the Moravian faith or other religions and spiritual groups at the school. For athletics, the Salem College teams are literally the Spirits — although of the cheerful intangible kind and not the ghostly kind. There is no official mascot, either, although unofficial ones such as bees and squirrels have appeared at games in the past.

Germ Magazine, LaNise Salley, Salem College, alumnae bazaar, clubs and organizations fundraisers
The alumnae bazaar provides a chance for former students of the college to support current students. It is a fundraising event where members of campus clubs sell Salem themed goods to help pay for club expenses./ Photo courtesy of LaNise Salley.

Arguably the most important “spirit” is that of empowerment. Salem College is a safe place for women. The school is guarded by a force of hired public safety officers who are kind and easy to talk to. Women are encouraged to speak out and lead everywhere on campus, which is not always available at co-ed schools since women are sometimes lost in the shadows of male students. Equality does not stop with gender and, although admittedly not flawless, many seek to make the campus a warm and welcoming place to people of all backgrounds and walks of life.

Whereas serious issues like rape and hate crimes are often ignored or covered up by other schools, the Salem College community is proactive about these issues in the areas of positive change, prevention, and healing. A safe place where you are allowed to be yourself is a powerful place that can awaken a person’s true potential.

Germ Magazine, Jasmine Huff, Salem College, squirrels, wildlife in the city
Salem College has a lot of squirrels and they are not shy. There are so many of them, students are often seen wearing shirts that read “I brake for squirrels.”/ Photo courtesy of Jasmine Huff.

Salem College is not perfect and might not appeal to everyone. The tuition cost for traditional students is an all-time high of $36,754 a year, which includes the requirement of living on campus and having a meal plan at the notorious refectory (endearingly nicknamed “the rat”). While scholarships exist, they are competitive and usually do not cover room and board expenses. Students should also be vigilant when it comes to their financial aid, signing up for classes, and managing their own four-year plan. Due to the age of the residence halls, some students deal with cramped spaces and invasions from nature that would remind many of summer camp dorms.

Despite these complaints, Salem College is a valuable place. While it holds fast to its history and traditions, changes like a new president, a new student center, and eventually a new dorm continue to shape the legacy of the school. If you are considering a college to attend, think about Salem College, where you can be part of an inspiring collective spirit.

 

 

 


 

Jasmine Huff has an array of talents. She’s an extremely intuitive visual artist, writer, photographer, and craftswoman. Jasmine finished high school after the tenth grade to attend Salem College, where she earned her major in Film & Media Studies with minors in Women’s Studies and Creative Writing. She has now been accepted to Northwestern University where she will earn her MFA in Documentary Media. Her family owns Huff Art Studio in Winston-Salem, NC.

LaNise Salley is a photography assistant at Jasmine Huff Photography.

 

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