`IT'S been a long, strange trip,'' reads the signature T-shirt of the graduating class here at Wheaton College, which was founded as a women's college in 1843 and began accepting men two years ago. These graduating students - 244 women and two male transfer students - were the last class admitted to Wheaton expecting to graduate from an all-female school.
``We've experienced the fight ..., the change, and the initial dawning of the coed years at Wheaton,'' says Pauline Collins, senior-class president.
Wheaton plunged into coeducation with a unique goal in mind. ``When we decided to become coed, we decided to do it differently - and we felt we had a wonderful opportunity to shape the campus community here in the way that we wanted to,'' says Hannah Goldberg, provost at Wheaton.
Two years into this process, it is difficult to determine Wheaton's success, say both insiders and outsiders. The effort does, however, provide a frame of reference for women's colleges that are considering the move from single-sex education to coeducation.
The recurrent debate over the issue has been fired up again by an uproar at Mills College in Oakland, Calif. A board of trustees' vote to admit men sparked the heated controversy.
The decision to go coeducational was reversed after Mills students took over the campus in protest and alumnae helped put together an alternative financial rescue plan.
Women's colleges, like black colleges, were originally founded to provide an education for those shut out of institutions of higher education.
In the 1960s and '70s, many schools for women closed or merged with men's colleges when the doors of formerly all-male colleges opened to women. In the past three decades, the number of women's colleges has fallen from a high of 298 in 1960 to 94 today.
A continuing decline in the college-age population is destabilizing most colleges in the United States. Meanwhile, it leaves many women's colleges gasping for air as they attempt to hold onto their unique market. Only a small percentage of women graduating from high school even consider applying to a women's college.
``Those women's colleges that have made the commitment to remain women's colleges are doing quite well,'' says Peter Mirijanian, spokesman for the Women's College Coalition.
Survival of the fittest seems to define the battle. Grandes dames such as Smith College in Northhampton, Mass., and Wellesley College in Wellesley, Mass., are still attracting women; overall enrollment at women's colleges has gained slightly in the past three years.
But the list of women's colleges capitulating to financial pressures and admitting men continues to grow.
Advocates say that all-female colleges provide a nurturing atmosphere where women can excel educationally, socially, and politically without the competition of male students. Critics contend that women should be learning how to work with men in ``real-life'' situations.
``Women's colleges are not here to shelter women,'' Mr. Mirijanian says. ``We provide something that other colleges don't provide. And it's proven in the results.''
Studies show that graduates of women's colleges are overrepresented in leadership positions in the United States. Many of the women in Congress and in major corporate boardrooms are women's college graduates.
``How old are all these women?'' asks Susan Rieger, a lecturer in legal studies at Mount Holyoke College and Hampshire College in Massachusetts. ``Those women went to college in the '40s, '50s, and '60s when there was no place for them in a place like Yale or Harvard or Amherst or Williams. ... I think that when you look at women's graduates from the late '70s and '80s, you're going to find that the women that go to the coeducational schools will be very well represented.''
Mirijanian insists that ``the value of a women's college education in 1990 is as valid as it was in 1950.''
In the midst of this passionate battle, Wheaton's administrators are attempting to build a new model of coeducation. They cite gender equality as the cornerstone of this model.
Ten years ago, Wheaton embarked on a ``balanced curriculum project,'' which focuses on bringing issues of gender into the curriculum as a whole.
This endeavor ``set the stage for coeducation,'' according to Joe Pleck, a professor of psychology at Wheaton.
In addition, an on-going program called the Teaching/Learning Project was created to foster a ``learning environment that is equally hospitable to both men and women,'' Dr. Goldberg says.
The college holds monthly teaching effectiveness workshops in which faculty learn to be aware of biases in their teaching practices.
``Our faculty is tremendously committed to developing students as active learners,'' Goldberg says.
``What's interesting about Wheaton is that unlike other schools that started going coed ... Wheaton said, `Let's study the process as it's going on,''' says Catherine Krupnick, a consultant hired to do research at Wheaton.
``Women's colleges have a tradition of preparing women to go against society's expectations of them,'' says Wheaton's president, Alice F. Emerson. ``Now we're trying to do the same thing for women and men together.''
The president cannot conceal her excitement as she explains Wheaton's transformed mission: ``Now we're saying that in order to empower women they have to learn how to successfully be partners with men. The men are trying to learn how to be partners with women.''
Dr. Emerson still sees a role for women's colleges. ``The ways in which women's colleges can counteract stereotypes is probably still more effective than the ways in which coeducational colleges can in some areas,'' she says.
She points to a distinction missing in the discussion of coeducation. ``Coeducational colleges that started as men's colleges and have as their predominant historic culture men's values and interests are different from the ones that started with women's values and interests. You can't just say coeducational and single-sex; you have to say coeducational standing on what root,'' Emerson says.
Many of the students comment on the increased social life on campus.
``It's socially different,'' says senior-class president Collins, ``It's made Wheaton more of a seven-day campus.'' The students no longer have to retreat to other campuses to find dates and weekend activities.
Stanley De Silva is one of the 80 pioneering men who entered Wheaton in 1988. Joining the first class of men at Wheaton ``represented an interesting challenge,'' says Mr. De Silva, who graduated from an all-male high school.
``It wasn't perfect,'' De Silva says of the first year. But he never had any confrontations with senior women. ``If anything the seniors that I knew were very receptive, and very open, and very helpful,'' he says.
Hostilities have come to the surface at times, however. This year's ``Senior Hell Night,'' a customary celebration involving sprays of shaving cream and streams of toilet paper, led to threatened violence and verbal conflict.
One incident involved a freshman male who brandished a bullwhip at a group of senior women. The young man was arrested. ``It was the result of an unfortunate misunderstanding, but also a troubled student,'' says Sue Alexander, dean of students.
Another incident occurred the same night when underclass students lashed out at the seniors. They yelled obscenities and threw water balloons and firecrackers at the senior women. Dean Alexander characterizes the activity as a ``clash of campus cultures.''
STUDENTS have complained of animosity between the senior women and the underclassmen, both male and female. ``There's a feeling of loss on the part of the upperclasswomen that the underclasswomen are not quite the same as they are,'' says Debbie Kreutzer, a sophomore chemistry major from Seattle.
The seniors ``lament the fact that the entering women students seem to have less of a feminine consciousness than they now do,'' Alexander says.
``And I always have to remind them that when they arrived four years ago they didn't have much of a feminine consciousness either,'' she says. ``That has been a product of four years at Wheaton College, and it's our intent that that not be lost in a coeducational Wheaton.''
John Kricher, a biology professor at Wheaton since 1970, says the campus has become much more lively in the past two years since men were admitted.
In his classes, he finds that men have the same educational needs as women. It's ``surprising how much the males need nurturing as well,'' he says. ``My students have the same uncertainties as before - it just happened that they were female voices before.''