Mary Baldwin and the city of Staunton have long valued the importance of cultivating town-gown partnerships. MBC students, along with staff members of the Booker T. Washington Community Center maintain a community garden together. A grant from the Environmental Protection Agency links the college and city in a joint mission promote stewardship. This semester, an MBC student started teaching Chinese to students at Robert E. Lee High School.
Now, a new project is putting a whole new meaning behind the term “Town and Gown.”
Students and faculty in the Shakespeare and Performance program are putting out the call for donations of master’s-level graduation gowns from residents of Staunton and surrounding communities. They hope to build a supply of gowns that will give them the ability to outfit each student graduating with a Master of Letters (MLitt) or Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree. The Commencement ceremony will be held at 10 a.m. on Sunday, May 22, on Page Terrace.
The initiative began in response to a growing concern from college administrators that too few students graduating with a MFA or MLitt degree were attending Commencement. When polled, the consensus among students and graduates was that money was the problem.
“Between graduate fees, costs for regalia, and possible travel expenses, many students simply could not afford to attend,” said Taylor ‘Linden’ Kueck, student representative to the MLitt/MFA Educational Policy Committee and a second-year graduate student who will receive her MLitt degree in May. “Most students put all their resources into the basic costs of living and into their education. So, for some, to put that much money into clothing for one event seems extravagant.”
The regalia — a hat, tassel, hood, and gown — comes in a package that costs a little more than $70, but students can also choose to purchase each item separately. By borrowing a gown and buying the rest, students can save almost $30, which as soon-to-be MLitt graduate Amanda Allen pointed out is “groceries for a week.”
“We like to keep our loans as low as possible, but the amount of money we get in loans often limits the amount we can spend on living expenses,” she explained. “As tuition costs rise, our loan money often stays the same, and that further limits the amount of money we have to cover our living expenses.”
Allen also hopes to build up a stock of hoods to lend graduates, which would mean an additional $35 savings, but since hood-style is specific to the degree and school, they will have to come from MBC graduates.
Money is often tight for graduate students, who may be putting themselves through school and still have significant undergraduate loans.
“We are an important part of the MBC community,” said Julie Fox, assistant director of operations for Shakespeare and Performance. “We want to see our students at graduation. If we need to provide gowns to our students, then that is what we’ll do.”
The drive has been approved by College Marshals Lundy Pentz, associate professor of biology, and Sara Nair James ’69, professor of art history — who are responsible for protocol at formal academic affairs — as long as the donations are proper master’s-level gowns.
“The master’s gown is a little longer than a bachelor’s but differs most in the sleeves, which have little extensions at the elbows and slits to allow the forearm to be bared,” Pentz said. “It’s actually a vestige of the day when a master’s degree was specifically for a person who would be a schoolmaster, and needed to be able to bare the arm to cane students.”
Whether the drive ultimately works to entice MLitt and MFA students to attend their graduation ceremony remains to be seen. Kueck said that it is the thought that counts.
“It does show students that the college wants their presence at the ceremony and that the college, too, is willing to make sacrifices to get them there,” she said. “That kind of gesture can be really important.”
Pentz also believes that lending gowns will increase attendance. “I think that students might very well skip graduation because of the expense of the regalia, and having gowns on loan could overcome some of these problems,” he said. “And I would imagine that any student of Shakespeare’s plays would jump at the chance to wear this most Renaissance of all robes, the graduation regalia.”
Questions about donating gowns can be directed to Julie Fox, 540-887-7237. Donations must be made by April 1 for use in this year’s Commencement ceremony, but the Shakespeare and Performance program will accept donations year round.