Reflecting on a Castle Point Milestone as Stevens Goes Co-Ed

2/22/2012

When Robert Seavy, the dean of admissions at Stevens in the 1970s, heard the official word that the university was going co-ed for undergraduates, one of his first reactions wasn’t about how historic this decision was or how he would find qualified female students. No, almost immediately, one thought popped into his head: sleeping quarters.

“Where were they going to sleep?” he recalled asking himself at the time. “I knew it would be a problem, but, we worked it out. It really was such an exciting time on campus. We knew things would change forever.” 

Seavy, who earned a master’s degree from Stevens in 1948, also knew that he had to get busy. The Board of Trustees voted in December 1970 to accept female undergraduates for the upcoming fall semester and he had to find qualified candidates, which meant appealing to high school seniors, most of whom would have made their college choice already. Seavy began actively recruiting in early 1971 at all-girl high schools in New Jersey and at high schools where he had established contacts. He remembers the first acceptance letter to a female undergraduate his office sent out. 

“The whole office was very excited. We got it all started,” he said. Eventually, 19 women entered Stevens as undergraduates in the fall of 1971, as the pioneering Class of ’75. And as for the dorm room dilemma he faced early on, the solution was relatively easy: a section of the Married Student Housing (now called the Castle Point Apartments) was set aside for the female students.  

For Richard Eversen, the retired associate provost and dean of student affairs, finding suitable female students proved a little challenging at first. “Stevens had very high standards back then, as they do now. It was hard to find females who were at the top of their class who had advanced math classes. Don’t forget that, at that time, a lot of young women in high school didn’t take much math.” 

“And engineering wasn’t thought of as a career path for women then. Most women at the time were in the teaching and nursing fields. There weren’t many who considered a career in physics, math or chemistry,” Eversen said. But, the female students during those first years were very smart, he said. And, as Seavy echoed, all Stevens undergraduates must “have the goods” to succeed at Castle Point.  

The Stevens Indicator Winter 1971 edition released the results of a poll on campus taken before the co-ed change that showed a high majority of students favored having female undergraduates on campus. With 861 responses, 651 voted yes, 179 said no and 31 had no opinion. A survey to alumni showed no strong feeling either way, and discussions with alumni groups showed that they favored the change. 

Malena Aldecoa Higuera ’75 recalls how welcoming the male students were. 

“I think at first they saw us as women, but after the first year or so, they saw us as classmates,” she said. 

Higuera remembers where she was when she heard about the co-ed change at Stevens: She was in homeroom during her senior year at Hoboken High School in 1971. Her family had settled in Hoboken after emigrating from Cuba in 1968, leaving behind Fidel Castro’s socialist state.  

“I was in homeroom and I heard they were opening up to women undergraduates. Coming from Cuba just a few years before, English was not my strong suit. But something clicked for me with math. I knew that math was the language that would get me by,” she recalls. “I visited MIT, (a school in) Boston and Princeton, but I wanted nothing but the best and I knew that Stevens was the best.”  

It turns out that Higuera also had one special cheerleader in her corner. 

Her principal at Hoboken High School was Thomas Gaynor, himself a graduate of Stevens in 1932. “He encouraged me for sure, but he also wanted me to know that it wasn’t an easy school, that it was tough. He wanted to make sure I was sure of it,” she recalled. And the experience created a special bond between the principal and student as Gaynor’s support helped Higuera become the first female graduate of HHS to receive her B.S. from Stevens. 

During her undergraduate days, Higuera lived with her family at Washington and 11th streets, just a few blocks from campus. Money was tight for her family in those days. “I didn’t live on campus, but I got to experience a lot of things,” she said. “I got to see the World Trade Center being built, I became involved with the Latin American Club and one time, during a snowstorm, some of my guy friends actually carried me down the hill to my house so I wouldn’t slip.” 

In 1971, Higuera recalls that first group of women being called into a room for a meeting with administrators. They asked the students if they wanted to be segregated during classes or randomly mixed among the men. “We were offered a choice. We wanted to be treated as equals, so we chose to be in the same classes. Sometimes I would be the only woman in class, sometimes it was two of us. We did not get a break and we wanted it that way,” she said. 

The “sisterhood,” as Higuera calls that first group of women, created a unique friendship that she relishes to this day. “I got to know the other women very well. Because I didn’t speak English as well as the others, they were very protective of me and really were supportive.” 

After graduation, she worked for Allied Chemical Corp. and earned her M.M.S. from Stevens in 1978. She gave birth to her children, Malena and Kevin, and stayed home with them for a few years. She re-entered the workforce in 1983 as a cosmetics engineer at Revlon and Higuera now works as director of process engineering with Coty Inc. 

Joseph Moeller, Jr. ’67, M.Eng. ’69, Ph.D. ’75, who was a circuits professor during the ’70s, recalled the integration of women and the acceptance of students from outside the tri-state area as widely accepted. 

“The admission of women undergraduates was generally considered a positive and progressive step forward for the Institute,” Moeller recalled. 

Michi Wada ’75 remembers those early days on campus. During her senior year at Bergenfield High School in Bergenfield, N.J., she visited several colleges, but when she heard about the co-ed opportunity at Stevens, she made Castle Point her home. And during her time at Stevens, she was a member of the first female fencing team, which was established in the 1974-75 year.    

Fencing was new at the time to Wada, but “fencing sounded like something I wanted to try and it helped that they had an established men’s team,” she recalled. 

Today, Wada lives in New Mexico and works as a programmer with Sandia National Laboratories. “I’m still with the same company that I started out with after I graduated from Stevens,” she said.