College aims to recruit more Wesleyan women

Wesleyan College campus
Wesleyan College in Macon, Ga., is stepping up recruitment efforts in Florida. Photo from Wesleyan College.

In an era when news reports daily tout the rise of women as business executives, political leaders and notable scholars, it may be difficult to picture a past when female students interested in higher education needed a champion to break down barriers.

But in the 1830s, when a group of Methodists founded Wesleyan College in Macon, Ga., opportunities for women were far more limited than they are today.

Wesleyan began accepting students in January 1839 and remains the oldest women-only college in the U.S., and some Wesleyan alumnae with Florida roots, including retired Bishop Charlene Payne Kammerer and Rev. Jennifer Stiles Williams, say young women pursuing a college degree still benefit from that distinction.

“I really loved the experience of being in a community of women students where, really, the sky was the limit,” Kammerer said.

Today, as Wesleyan looks to strengthen ties to the Florida Conference, its nurturing climate remains its biggest draw, said Mary Ann Howard, communications director for the college.

“As the first college in the world chartered to grant degrees to women, Wesleyan continues to take seriously its role as a pioneer in women’s education,” Howard said in an email.

“National studies consistently validate what we at Wesleyan College see every day – that a single-gender educational environment is extremely powerful for women, particularly in the areas of engaged leadership and academic excellence in fields of math and science.”

Howard said Wesleyan’s financial aid department this year began offering $8,000 scholarships to Florida students who had qualified for the state’s Bright Futures award. The school also has an admission counselor specifically charged with recruiting in Florida and has called on its many Florida alumnae to put the school in touch with potential students in the Sunshine State.

Wesleyan, with about 650 undergraduate students on campus, accepts about two dozen a year from Florida, but Howard said she expects that number to grow. 

Bishop Kammerer headshot Rev. Jenn Stiles Williams headshot
Bishop Kammerer  Jenn Stiles Williams

For Kammerer, Wesleyan offered a life-changing experience, including setting her on a path to ordination and ultimately, in 1996, to becoming the first female bishop elected in the Southeast Jurisdiction of The United Methodist Church.

“I very, very much wanted to go to college, and I wasn’t sure that my family could afford college for me,” said Kammerer, who lives near Waynesville, N.C., but grew up in Winter Garden. She remembered that her pastor and high school teachers suggested Wesleyan, and she applied without even seeing the campus first.

“It had small class sizes, it was United Methodist-related, and it had an excellent reputation for training women for all types of careers.”

That was important because Kammerer did not have a firm career plan in mind. She knew she liked religion and philosophy; but, she said, “I was not considering ordination at the time.”

In fact, she credits her favorite religion professor with prodding her into attending seminary. She went on to become a pioneer among female clergy in the Florida Conference, blazing a trail as first woman pastor at several local churches and eventually serving as district superintendent. The lessons she learned at Wesleyan provided the foundation for her ministry, she said.

All students were expected to participate in class, develop leadership skills, perform community service and seriously consider graduate studies, she added.

“The message was … do well academically and become a leader in your community and church, as well as family,” said Kammerer, who received her bachelor’s degree from Wesleyan in 1970. “That was an expectation then, and I think that’s still there.”

Stiles Williams, whose mother worked with Kammerer when she was a Florida district superintendent, took her cue from the future bishop and chose Wesleyan for her undergraduate program also. She received her bachelor’s degree in sociology and psychology in 1993 and went on to get her Master of Divinity degree from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology in Atlanta. 

"Wesleyan really wanted me here -- I wasn't just a number. I realized my own strength as a woman by being here. As a woman, and as a human, I have worth, I have intelligence and I have something to contribute to society. I think attending a women's college played a large part in empowering me and giving me the confidence to do anything."

 -- Betsy Herlong, Class of 2012

Today Stiles Williams serves as executive pastor at St. Luke’s UMC, Orlando, one of the largest and most community service-minded congregations in the Florida Conference. In the spring, she was tapped by Bishop Ken Carter to represent him on the school’s board of trustees.

Carter said in a recent interview that Stiles Williams was ideal for the job not only because of her history at the college but because she is “a great role model for students” considering a career in ministry.

“Jenn is one of our most effective and creative pastors,” he said.

Carter said he is eager to promote relationships between local churches and colleges with United Methodist ties, including Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach and Florida Southern College in Lakeland.

“Historically, these colleges have had strong relationships with churches,” the bishop said. “Churches have identified young people who might be leaders in their church, and these colleges have been important in helping them [students] discern who they are and what they want to do with their lives.

“A number of our colleges have realized that their destiny is wrapped up in the health of the local church and the pipeline of students from our churches.”

Stiles Williams said she is eager to promote the strengths of her alma mater to the next generation of women college students.

“They [Wesleyan faculty] have an amazing capacity to challenge women beyond an education and academics … to understand who they are and their ability to make a difference in the world,” Stiles Williams said.

“It [Wesleyan] stands for United Methodist values.”

-- Susan Green is the managing editor of Florida Conference Connection.

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