At William and Mary, school opens sooner or later

When do classes for the fall term begin at the College of William and Mary?

While the opening of colleges and universities across the country range from mid-August to mid-September, the William and Mary term now begins in late August and ends just prior to the Christmas holidays.

For much of the 20th century, however, the school opened in mid-September, and classes adjourned for the holidays to resume for two weeks in January with exams coming later in the month.

In late Colonial times the school session opened in October with the final classes in late June; graduation exercises, a week-long, major event, came around July 4th.

Unlike today, when admissions are routinely finalized in mid-spring, admission to the school in the 18th and 19th centuries frequently came at the last minute. Rarely were schools like William and Mary filled to capacity, and there always seemed space for one more. For example, in 1779 James Monroe apparently sought admission just days before the session began.

Monroe, who later became the fifth president of the United States, was a student at William and Mary from 1774 to 1776, and left the classroom to join the military in the early stages of the Revolutionary War. In September 1779 he found himself back in Virginia's Colonial capital without a military assignment and found the college about to open.

According to his autobiography, Monroe, writing in the third person, said, "Mr. Monroe immediately re-entered the college, [and] resumed his study of general science in it." By the next October, Monroe was gone again, and one student wrote that the old royal college was "entirely deserted by every Student but one or two who are sick."

After the Revolutionary War ended, William and Mary did not resume classes until October 1782, and during that year efforts were focused on repairing buildings damaged during the war, including the main structure. There was not enough space on campus to house new and returning students, so they were forced to board with families in town.

Just prior to the opening session in the fall of 1788, Thomas Jefferson, a William and Mary alumnus (1760-1762) wrote to his friend Ralph Izard of Charleston, South Carolina: "Williamsburg is a remarkably healthy situation, reasonably cheap, and affords very genteel society. I know no place in the world, while the present professors remain, where I would as soon place a son." There is no record, however, of an Izard attending the college.

Years later, on May 10, 1861, after Virginia and other southern states had voted to secede from the Union, the faculty of William and Mary voted to suspend classes for the remainder of the session with the hope that "the state of the country" would allow the school to reopen for the October session. That did not happen, and war ensued; the school would not reopen until October 1865. Again, as after the Revolution, the college's physical plant needed vast repairs, and students were housed with families in town.

When William and Mary opened in September 1918, the returning male students found new companions on campus: the college had become coeducational.

For the first time women were in classes and working for degrees alongside their male counterparts, and World War I was one of the catalysts.

Opening convocation now is a major event at the college. Routinely held at the opening of fall semester, classes, the program takes place on the front yard of the Sir Christopher Wren Building. At its conclusion the William and Mary president leads those attendees, primarily freshman and transfer students, through the building to the courtyard side where they are greeted by faculty, staff, and students.

This convocation was reestablished in 1993 during William and Mary's tercentenary celebration. During the 1950s and 1960s it had been held several weeks into the session in old Blow Gymnasium.

Kale, of Williamsburg, is the author of a number of nonfiction books of local interest.

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