The last class of the 20th century graduating from The Citadel, South Carolina's public military college, will be the first of its kind in the school's 156-year history.
Among the 400 male graduates who will toss their stiff-brimmed hats in the air tomorrow will be one woman. Nancy Mace becomes the first woman to graduate from a school that for many embodies Southern ideals - honor, gallantry, and fierce independence.
Two years after the federal service academies admitted women, her graduation marks a turning point for higher education in the United States. It represents the end of an era among state-supported schools that fought Washington over access and equity, first for blacks and more recently for women.
Yet tradition doesn't change easily, especially in the South. During her tenure, Ms. Mace underwent taunts,name-calling, and the cold uniformed shoulder of many of her male classmates. She has emerged, in fact, from a crucible few in the South even thought possible just a few years ago.
"Nancy is truly a remarkable woman who has not only acquitted herself well, but has represented The Citadel in the finest possible way," says Frank Mood, the college's governing board chairman.
When she walks across the stage in McAlister Fieldhouse, she takes the last steps in a journey started six years ago by Shannon Faulkner, the first woman admitted to The Citadel. Ms. Faulkner left after a week, citing stress and isolation.
As a high school senior in 1993, Faulkner was admitted to the then all-male military college because an admissions' clerk mistook her application as one submitted by a man.
When The Citadel rescinded the offer, it triggered a bitter battle and protracted, three-year court case that consumed the school and its sister institution - Virginia Military Institute.
Today, The Citadel has 41 women among its 1,600 cadets, and VMI, which started admitting women a year later, has 48 women among its 1,200 cadets.
Change comes hard for a school steeped in traditions and unique behavior-modification tactics that occasionally land The Citadel in hot water.
As her days as an undergraduate wound down, Mace sat for only a few interviews, including one with the local newspaper.
She talked candidly about the indignities of being the target of expletives, cold shoulders, and hissing from fellow cadets. She also spoke with pride about how she approached those experiences as tests of endurance.
"As a woman," she told The Post and Courier in Charleston, "you have to go the extra mile. You have to do so much more to be accepted equally. The first year was especially uncomfortable.... You feel like everyone is looking at you - every detail, how you walk, how you talk, how you dress."
In the classroom, Mace was often the only woman among a sea of gray-clad men. Seats around her were the last to fill up.
Of the three other women who started with Mace in 1996, two left after one semester. They complained of sexual harassment and hazing, including having their clothes set afire. Both sued, and one settled for roughly $33,000. The other case, which asks for a $4 million judgment, is still pending.
One woman who enrolled at The Citadel after Mace was Mandy Garcia, the school's first female scholarship athlete. Like Mace, she has seemed to flourish in spite of intense pressure and scrutiny that goes with being a woman at The Citadel.
"Being under the microscope is something we're going to have to face for some time to come," Ms. Garcia says. "You let things roll off. People are going to say things about you and you can't let it distract you."
Mace arrived at The Citadel with credits from a two-year college and took a heavy course load to finish her studies in three years. She will receive a degree with honors in business administration.
Retired Army Gen. Emory Mace, gets the honor of handing the diploma to his daughter - dressed in the school's starch gray uniform, complete with white gloves. "As a father, I couldn't be more proud," says the elder Mace, who was hired in 1997 to oversee military training at The Citadel, his alma mater.
Senior class leaders have put out the word encouraging classmates to show the appropriate decorum at Saturday's commencement.
But while the official position of the school is that this year's graduation will be a great occasion, the historic moment has its skeptics.
Senior Reed Wilson, the highest-ranking cadet, says some of his classmates resent Mace's decision to graduate a year ahead of schedule.
"This is not the perfect environment yet. We have a long way to go," says Mr. Wilson, adding that he respects Mace for her accomplishments as a cadet and as a student. But he describes himself as "indifferent" toward her personally. "I'm graduating just as much as Nancy Mace is."
Next week, two women - Melissa Graham and Chih-Yuan Ho - become the first women to graduate from VMI. Both enrolled two years ago as transfer students.
"I'm not going to say everything is perfect. It's not," says VMI spokesman Mike Strickler. "You don't change 157 years of tradition overnight." Still, he adds, "I think things have gone about as well as we could have hoped. I credit the cadets for that."
Back at The Citadel, Allison Dean Wright, one of two women the governing board recruited to provide advice on assimilation of women, believes Mace should get the credit. "She has been the epitome of a great cadet. She has really set the pace for females in the future."