STAUNTON, Va. (AP) — It's been more than a year since Logan Davenport and Dominic Walker stepped onto the Mary Baldwin campus as part of the first school year including full-time male undergraduate students.
A little over a year from now they'll be in the first graduating class of Mary Baldwin University that will include men receiving bachelor's degrees.
Built into one of the city's many rolling hills, Mary Baldwin looms amiably over what to an outsider may seem a sleepy town — a Southern place tied to tradition.
But, despite a century of history as a women's college, MBU is doing something most wouldn't have imagined just five years ago.
It's not even something these two local guys thought would happen: full integration of men into college life.
The school, which changed its name to Mary Baldwin University a few years ago, had continued to grow its graduate-level co-educational programs. Few, including its all-female alumni, thought the name change would bring with it the first men to live on campus.
But now these two young men are at the mild-mannered vanguard — just seven full-time male students in the first year — of a controversial but successful evolution of a prominent educational institution in Staunton.
Sitting on a bench on the steps of Miller Chapel overlooking the campus as they casually talk, Davenport and Walker could almost be mistaken for those types of monuments found on benches at universities: two bronze life-sized figures leaning back in a conversation frozen in time, with the label "FIRST MEN ON CAMPUS" attached to the bench.
But both shrug off any awareness of their part in history. And both show a respect that borders on solemnity for the difficulty of the change the university is attempting. They didn't come here to make history, they insist.
Davenport jokes that they really came here to save some gas money.
"So yeah, we were actually neighbors for a little while," says Davenport, looking over at Walker.
"He lived just down the hill from me," Walker says.
"And we attended the same high school, and we became best buddies," Davenport finishes.
After graduation from Lee, both were attending Blue Ridge Community College when one of them read that Mary Baldwin was opening up undergraduate study to men.
"Now I can't speak for Dominic," Davenport starts, going on to do exactly that, "but I can say Dominic was like, 'Hey man, you want to go to Mary Baldwin? It's right in town and could save us some gas!'"
It goes a little deeper than that.
While Davenport has lived in Staunton his entire life, Walker has moved around a lot. When his family arrived in Staunton in 2014, he felt a sense of home almost immediately.
"When it was time for college to really start up, I came to fall in love with Staunton and I didn't want to leave just as I got here, you know, so that's why I went to Blue Ridge Community College," he says.
They acted together in performances at Blue Ridge and then were asked to audition for some Mary Baldwin plays because the cast needed male actors.
"We made a few friends doing that, so when we first came to Mary Baldwin we already had some connections here," says Davenport.
"That's really how we got our foot in the door," Walker says.
Davenport is a music performance major. Walker is a history major with a minor in education.
Do they like the education they're receiving in their chosen majors?
"It's a small college, and they make do," Davenport says. "But what they have is fantastic. The teachers actually work here one-on-one with you. So it's really good."
So were they welcomed at Mary Baldwin last year? Dramatic pause from the two performers.
"Yeahhhh..." Walker starts, then Davenport breaks out laughing. "We were very unwelcome, I'll say that."
Walker chooses his words carefully while Davenport chuckles quietly, waiting to see how his friend will proceed.
"There was an incident early on in the school year, last year. There's another student in my class who I had never met. But she managed to find my phone number from someone and was harassing me on and off, mostly about politics. And apparently for speaking too much in class. Like raising my hand too much.
"And oh, God it made me not want to, like..." Walker pauses.
Both men are aware of the strangeness of their situation. From the outset, Davenport chooses a light if straightforward angle, while Walker tries to find the right words, aware that he's talking, if not for history, then at least for a news story.
"No, it's that it just felt very — "
"Unwelcoming, yeah?" Davenport busts in.
"Yeah. yeah," Walker continues. "The bad thing was that they were friends with a lot of people in my program. So it made it very hard. I'm in the education leaders program. And I felt unwelcome within my own program, because I couldn't hang out or really be around the other people in my program without them being around."
Asked if he reported it, he says, "Ah, I let it be. I thought about reporting it. But I just texted the person back and just told them, 'hey, you're kind of being sexist.' And they backed off and I never heard about it again. So that was good. But it took a couple of months for that to happen."
Davenport dealt with a more direct grilling in a social setting.
"I didn't have too many issues. I did have one instance, when I went to a dance here," he says. "One of the undergraduate students came up to me, and was just railing on me for being a male student at Mary Baldwin. Saying I'm taking their positions in medical programs here because I'm a man, and I'm from such a small demographic at the moment that we could get whatever we want.
"After listening for a while, I finished it by just saying, 'Oh, um, I'm a music major. I don't have anything to do with that. But I'm sorry you feel that way.'"
These incidents, while isolated, were minor compared to larger internal pressures both of them felt to represent themselves well in a school where they knew some saw them as intruders.
Anticipating the need for extra attention to the young men's adjustment, the university provided living-learning communities, LLCs. As part of an "LLC," such as a Shakespeare LLC, each student was provided academic and community/cohort support.
Because the number of male students was so small, Laura Cammaraoto, director of student support, and Associate Provost Carey Usher got to know each of these men and were very hands on in providing more individual support to them, according to the university.
This included regular hall meetings at the men's hall in Tullidge Hall and occasional gatherings outside of campus. One example was when Paul Menzer, head of the Shakespeare program, and Provost Ty Buckman took the male students out for BBQ at The Blue Ridge Pig in Nelson County.
"I really got along pretty fine," says Walker. "Just did my own thing, working on school, my studies, and as long as I wasn't bothering anyone else no one really bothered me." He pauses.
Instances of group passive resistance were more prevalent than the few confrontations. "But it was, uh... it was very depressing, oftentimes." And perhaps for Walker, a little surprising.
Walker grew up in a family where he was the only male. He was used to being surrounded by intelligent and strong-minded females. Being at Mary Baldwin, however, was different.
"It felt very lonely at times, because I felt like I could not be very good friends with anyone, is what it felt like. I just felt like an outsider, you know?"
Did that go hand-in-hand with trying to be extra careful to not appear as too much of a stereotypical college guy?
"Yeah," they both say at the same time.
"I'm already not too much of a 'macho man' at all, but I still felt like I had to be very walking on my toes," says Walker.
Then this year brought a huge cultural change.
"This year, the culture is different," Walker continues. "A lot of the freshman class weren't coming to Mary Baldwin because of the all-girls school marketing and so a lot of the girls too who are here this year don't really care about it. The freshman class is so huge that it makes up like a big percentage of the college. So the college feels much more natural and — "
"Half this college is freshman," Davenport sums it up.
The new majority of undergraduate students on campus literally changed some of the college culture overnight, a group of both women and men who were not coming to Mary Baldwin for a single-sex education, but for a small and safe liberal arts education in a human-sized city.
"Yeah, it's kind of wild actually," says Davenport.
But you'd be wrong if you thought that meant the one-year-old old guard of males were suddenly celebrating.
"It's almost a little depressing, though," says Walker, "because it makes me really feel bad, and I do often feel guilty for being a man on campus. There's a history of all-women education here that I think was pretty powerful. And although I'm very happy to be going to school in the town that I love, I do feel that I have taken something away.
"But at the same time I think it's a very great thing that's happening. I want to see Staunton and Mary Baldwin succeed, and if more students are coming on campus that will help with that."
Both Davenport and Walker live off-campus this year. Davenport started the year in the building that was the men's sole dorm space last year, Tullidge Hall.
"They only had one dorm open to men last year," says Davenport. "It was the old military dorm. That's where they put the guys."
"It's cramped when you have the freshman class in there now, when you're packing two people to a dorm room. But we had a whole floor to ourselves and most of the people had doubles to ourselves. That was the life," says Davenport.
The building is "all the way over there on campus, a long way from everything over here," says Walker.
"On the outskirts," Davenport says.
With the new class pushing the male population closer to a hundred, things are changing.
Last year "kind of felt like us against the world, almost," says Walker. "It was the little things, you know, like others just looking away, not acknowledging you were there."
While the first year's males were pursuing studies in theater, education, liberal arts and medicine, according to Walker, the new males are more interested in sports, and the university is marketing their sports programs successfully to bring in more athletes.
"So it feels more, I don't know..."
"Stereotypical college?" Davenport asks.
Did he prefer it last year?
"I'm just happy that more people are coming here for an education," Walker says.
Davenport and Walker had the unique experience with their fellow male students of suddenly being a distinct minority in a college setting for a year. What did they take out of that?
Davenport is an advocate for the Mary Baldwin College for Women, the segment of the university that still offers an all-female educational experience. Davenport took a class on the change that was ongoing and how he was part of it.
He says it put into perspective his fellow students' concern about "men coming on the campus and taking away that culture that we talked about earlier, because it was just completely built by women."
Davenport was in a class taught by Lawanda Ravoira of the Delores Barr Weaver Policy Center and the website seethegirl.org.
"I was the only guy in that class. She talked to all of us and got everyone to really open up about themselves. It was a weird, like therapeutic approach, and it changed me a little bit as a person, how I perceive things.
"I used to be more a 'bro' type of guy, like, you know, 'let's make jokes about everything, it's funny,' and now I'm a lot more careful about what I say. I feel like it's just part of growing up, and this definitely matured me a lot," Davenport says.
"And coupled with the responsibilities of just trying to survive last year, it was just a very eye-opening experience. And me and Dominic, we went through some things last year, just by being the minority here, and I would say what we took away..." He looks over at his friend.
"We earned respect, and we gave respect."
Davenport continues, "We decided we'd respect everyone else who came before" to the school. He says that when Dominic talked about not wanting to take away the old culture, "that's kind of where I'm at, too."
Walker adds, "It's always been a very interesting topic for me. I'm Salvadoran on my mother's side. But you know, green eyes, blond hair — you wouldn't see it. And we've always moved a lot too, so I've always felt like the outsider wherever I've been.
"Like I've never belonged, there's always just been something different. So last year was kind of a bit of the same, it felt the same way, but it definitely gave me more respect just all around, and more understanding of where other people are coming from. Cause I've just been in my own head a lot of the time but last year it gave me a kind of appreciation and — " He pauses as his friend starts to say something.
"No no, go ahead," Davenport says.
"I don't know what I'm saying, I'm shooting myself in the foot," says Walker, shaking his head.
"No no, you're fine," Davenport assures him. "I think just combining what Dominic's saying with what I'm saying — when it was just us last year we were forced to interact with people we wouldn't normally interact with, and that's what made us change. That's what gave us our college experience, that made us open up in a way that we don't think we normally would have."
This year it's different because of the larger population. "If you wanted to you could just stay in your social bubble," he says. "But last year, with only eight guys — "
" — you can't stay in your bubble," Walker finishes. Because of the variety of majors within the small group, they did not often socialize outside of Tullidge.
"It was interesting, yeah," says Davenport. "We just ventured out, like into the sea, and that's where we built ourselves."
They don't think about themselves as a piece of history, or about monuments.
"I don't think we ever thought that far ahead," says Walker. But if there was going to be a statue to commemorate that year, "we'd need the handshake, of a female student and male student shaking hands," he says.
Both would like to support the university in the future as it continues to evolve.
"Are we gonna be those old men who donate lots of money?" Davenport says.
"Oh yeah, definitely. If I get a good job," says Walker.
Walker's post-graduate path might be teaching, or further study in anything from archaeology to teaching at a high school.
"I just want the college to succeed. I love Staunton. I think Mary Baldwin and Staunton are the most authentic places I've ever seen. And I've moved around a lot. It's a place I always want to come back to."
Davenport says he'll continue with vocal performance, "but when I get out of here I don't know how I'm going to fund my life." Though he has a vision, based in one of the dozens of old downtown brick buildings, maybe. "I do want to open up an electro-swing or jazz music hall. In that old club-like setting.
"This could be the place," he says, squinting into the early afternoon sun at the buildings of downtown Staunton as they pause at the bottom of the stairs before heading to class. "You never know."
Information from: The News Leader, http://www.newsleader.com