Jen Jolin grew up just over the mountains from the Virginia Military Institute, keenly aware it was a place where only the strongest succeed. This week, she tests her own strength.
She and 30 other young women will end VMI’s 158-year males-only enrollment policy when they report to the campus today.
“It’s scary, it really is,” Jolin said. “Anybody who says they’re not scared is crazy.”
For that matter, VMI, the last state-supported college to exclude women, is anxious, too.
No one here wants to suffer the scandals that beset The Citadel after Shannon Faulkner in 1995 became the first woman to enroll at the South Carolina military college.
The federal government battled in court for six years to force VMI to accept women and will watch closely for any sign females are being treated unfairly. VMI is under court order to file quarterly progress reports.
VMI won’t soften its rigid discipline. Women will wear the same drill uniforms and buzz haircuts as the men. They will live in spartan barracks, just as their brethren do. No lipstick. No jewelry. No dating upperclassmen.
After VMI’s Board of Visitors voted 9-8 last September to accept women rather than go private to stay all-male, Superintendent Josiah Bunting set in motion detailed planning for the transition.
The state gave VMI $5.1 million to help recruit women, hire extra staff and make necessary renovations, such as separate bathrooms. Last semester, with The Citadel reeling from accounts that male cadets had tormented and driven away two female freshmen, Bunting required all 1,200 cadets and 400 employees at VMI to undergo a coeducation orientation and attend seminars on sexual harassment and fraternization.
“If you see something happen that is untoward, you must act,” Bunting warned the cadets.
“All eyes are on VMI,” Kevin Trujillo, this year’s senior class president, told an assembly. “Some are just salivating at the thought of our failure. All it will take is the mistake of one person.”
The VMI class of 2001 includes women with impressive records of achievement.
Rachel Love, a high school cross-country runner from Emmaus, Pa., turned down an appointment to the Naval Academy to attend VMI. Kelly Sullivan of Jackson, Ga., pilots her own plane and was her state’s high school girls’ discus champion.
Jolin, a track star at Highland County High School, is resolved to make it at VMI.
“If they step across the line … like they did at The Citadel, I’m not going to quit,” she said. “They’re going to be out and I’m going to still be here.”
Bunting’s warning to the men of VMI is explicit: “If someone misbehaves or, God forbid, if someone sexually harasses or physically hazes a cadet or anything like that, they will be punished immediately and severely. I will not stand for it.”
Older cadets worry that the inyour-face discipline and physical, mental and emotional rigors placed on freshmen may come across as sexual harassment. Known as “rats,” for six months their lives resemble Marine Corps boot camp with a heavy dose of academics.
Over the summer, VMI sent 11-minute videos to all 466 incoming students depicting exactly what they face in Wednesday’s initiation. And upperclassmen have their orders: Be impersonal when disciplining male and female cadets - any reference to gender is out of bounds.