VWIL Marks 10th Anniversary

March 1, 2005

In anticipation of Mary Baldwin University’s upcoming celebration of the 10th anniversary of the Virginia Women’s Institute for Leadership, Dr. Brenda Bryant, director of the program and acting vice president for enrollment, and Brig. Gen. Mike Bissel, commandant of cadets, participated in a Q & A about the past decade of growth and discovery.

Founders:Mary Baldwin University began development of VWIL in 1993 at the request of the Commonwealth of Virginia, with seed money provided by the Virginia Military Institute Foundation. At a crucial moment, Douglas Wilder, then governor of Virginia, personally called Cynthia H. Tyson, then Mary Baldwin president, to ask her to go forward with the program. Now mayor of the city of Richmond, Mr. Wilder will be the featured speaker at the 10th anniversary celebration in March. The Commonwealth of Virginia still provides tuition support for Virginia residents in VWIL as well as some operating support through the Unique Military Activities appropriation.

President Tyson charged a faculty committee with designing the VWIL program under the leadership of Dr. James Lott, then dean of the college, and Dr. Heather Wilson, who was the dean of students at that time. The founding director Dr. Brenda Bryant still holds her position in the program. The commandant of cadets became a full-time position in 1999 and has been held since 1995 by Brig. Gen. Michael Bissell. Sharon Spalding, professor of health and physical education, designed VWIL’s physical components and now also holds the title of associate director. Sue Williams, assistant director, joined the staff shortly after it began.

People might be surprised to know:Very few of the founders of the program had military experience. They relied on research on leadership development, illuminated by their own experience in teaching women. An understanding of leadership – an historic and integral part of the Mary Baldwin student experience – guided the program’s design, then and now. Today our counterparts in the senior military colleges come to us for guidance in strengthening leadership development.

Anniversary:The first cadets enrolled in VWIL in 1995 to a blitz of media coverage. The 2004-05 nULLS are the 10th class of cadets – a milestone the college will celebrate March 18 and 19.

Philosophy:Leadership is learned through study and practice. Effective leaders know what is required of them and why; they know how to apply what they know. The best leaders are those who combine authenticity with skill, and are able and willing to learn for a lifetime.

Proudest moment(s):The corps marched to recorded music in its first parade on March 22, 1996. During commencement weekend in May 1999, the first change of command parade – at which the first class of cadets handed over their leadership roles to the second class – marked the maturing of the program.

Accomplishments with the marching band rank right up there, too: The four Lexington Christmas parades at which VWIL beat VMI for the top award, and winning second place among marching units in the St. Patrick’s Day parade in New York City on a snowy March 17, 2004 were some of the best.

Note: The entire VWIL Corps of Cadets was invited to march in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade this year, and most of its members will travel to NYC March 17 and return to Mary Baldwin for the anniversary celebration the next day!

Most memorable hijinks:The class of 2001 painted the Tullidge cannon pink! Obviously not allowed; it is government property. The result was confinement of the class and an assignment to return the cannon to its original state. A close runner-up: the Class of 1999’s raid on VMI. (The VWIL corps created its own flag and ran it up VMI’s flagpole without being caught.)

Biggest national spotlight:August 21 and 22, 1995: The first two days of orientation when VWIL was introduced to the world on ABC’s Good Morning America, CNN, and several other national television programs. There were literally more reporters on campus than students, and many satellite trucks broadcasting live.

In 2004, VWIL still commanded national attention when Cpt. Sherri Sharpe ’99, stationed as a helicopter pilot in Iraq, offered a candid and moving interview on the Today Show on NBC.

Most diverse corps:VWIL makes up 6% of the members of the Virginia Corps of Cadets (men and women), but accounts for 43% of women and approximately one-half of all ethnic minority women in that group. The Virginia Corps includes cadets at the Virginia Military Institute, Virginia Tech, and Mary Baldwin.

What we want others to remember about the program:Mary Baldwin University was very good at development of women leaders long before VWIL. The Virginia Women’s Institute for Leadership is representative of that proud tradition.