Forty Years of Women at Stevens: First Female Students Pioneered the University’s Future

When Martha Connolly '75 was mulling her many college acceptances in the spring of 1971, the prospect of achieving landmark status at Stevens Institute of Technology, which was admitting women as undergraduates for the first time 101 years after its founding, was certainly enticing. 
"The opportunity to break ground – to be the first – was a draw," she recalls.

But what closed the deal for Connolly was something else entirely – the personal attention of Robert Seavy, Dean of Admissions, who took her on a private tour of the campus and astounded her by knowing the names and majors of every student he encountered.

"This was clearly a place that really focused on undergraduate education," said Connolly.

When she arrived at Stevens that fall, Connolly was one of 19 women to join the Class of 1975, and quickly learned that the campus had been forewarned. The Indicator had signaled the special status of these pioneering freshmen by publishing their photographs in that fall's edition of the magazine. In classes, she was often the only woman.

"I would be the first name the professor learned, and thus the first to be called to the blackboard. And I could never cut class. They'd know, of course," she said with a smile.

That first year, the women shared rooms in a relatively luxurious building set aside for married students and received invites galore for parties across campus, including on the decommissioned World War II transport ship, the SS Stevens, which was anchored in the Hudson River and functioned as a dormitory.

"They really rolled out the red carpet for us," said Connolly, who earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree in four years at the university. Lenore Schupak '74, who enrolled in Stevens with the first class of women but took so many classes that she earned her degree in only three years and became the university’s first female graduate, believes her classmates were special for reasons besides their gender.

"I think Dean Seavy went through a very careful selection process,” said Schupak. “He wanted to make sure the first women not only had the academic credentials to succeed, but were independent-minded and able to think on their feet."

The university found ways to engage its first female students in areas outside of academics. While there were no women's sports teams in 1975, the coaches created opportunities to involve the new freshmen.

"I was interested in racquet sports and was asked to join the squash and tennis teams as manager,” said Schupak, who also joined the yacht club and was a photographer for The Stute. “I even got to practice with the boy’s tennis team. It was a very well-rounded experience."

Women engineers were almost unheard of in the early 1970s. The year Stevens admitted them, a mere 361 women across the country had earned undergraduate degrees in engineering, and women accounted for less than one percent of the Ph.D. students to receive doctorates in engineering, according to data from the National Science Foundation.

Despite the odds, both Connolly and Schupak excelled at Stevens. Both women went on to pioneering careers in their respective fields – biomedical engineering and biosciences for Connolly and environmental engineering for Schupak. Connolly went on to become the first female graduate of Johns Hopkins University’s biomedical engineering doctoral program, and she currently heads the Maryland Technology Enterprise Institute (Mtech) Maryland Industrial Partners Program at the University of Maryland, where she has spent her career fostering the state’s bioscience industry. Schupak also continued to be a trailblazer, working at an early alternative energy start-up and eventually for General Motors, helping the company implement early environmental compliance rules.

Spring forward 40 years and Stevens is a vastly different place, its landscape altered in part by the many talented and ambitious women who followed in the footsteps of these pioneers. Women now make up 25 percent of undergraduates and occupy many leadership roles on campus.

This year, for example, the chair of the Honor Board, the head of Gear and Triangle, the honor society, and the editor of the yearbook are all women. And there are now a total of 13 women's athletic teams on campus, all quite renowned. The strength of the programs allows Stevens to recruit scholar-athletes from all over the country, including Laura Barito '11, a mechanical engineering major who was recently chosen as NCAA Woman of the Year.

"I felt like I fit in right away," Barito said. "The attitude toward men's and women's athletic teams was very equal. All told, this was one of the most balanced experiences you could find in engineering."

Senior Kendra Appleheimer, who served as vice president of the Student Government Association last year under a fellow female president and has held impressive internships at ITT, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and Air Cruisers, agreed that women are highly influential on campus today.

"I do feel our impact is significant,” she said. "Those trailblazing women who were the first engineering students here started this tradition."

Women are so well integrated on campus today that most of the time Appleheimer barely notices that they are still a minority. During her internship at Air Cruisers, she was the only woman on a large project team, but didn’t realize it until someone pointed it out two weeks after she started.

"We're all working toward the same goal and the sense of community is so strong here that I don't even think about gender," she said.

If they are anything like their predecessors from 40 years ago, Appleheimer, Barito and their fellow female students can expect great success upon graduating from Stevens – by any standards.