Fifty years ago, Lehigh welcomed 169 women into the first co-education class, changing the course of the university for decades to come. Now, women make up 46 percent of the student body.
When Teri Regan Maco Exeter, ‘75, came to Lehigh, she joined 168 other women as the first ones to walk across the stage at a Lehigh University commencement. She said she wouldn’t have it any other way.
Exeter said she came from a poor family where college seemed like an unattainable dream. She saw education as her way out of poverty.
When Exeter decided to come to Lehigh, she knew she wanted to be an engineer and would be joining a male-dominated field. She said that didn’t scare her away even when she had professors and students question her place in classes.
“People were just surprised when they’d meet me and say, ‘You’re an engineer? But you’re a female,’” Exeter said.
However, she said the community and dorm of newly-admitted women constantly supported one another.
“We became like a family within the dorm itself and kind of took care of each other and helped each other,” Exeter said. “It was a safe environment.”
Compared to when she was at Lehigh 50 years ago, Exeter said she couldn’t believe Lehigh seemed to be “the same place.”
“I’m so proud that I went to Lehigh,” Exeter said. “It’s crazy, but I have the pride 50 years later. I watched this school go from a little engineering school to a real university.”
Soaring Together, Lehigh’s university-wide celebration of the impact and contributions of Lehigh women, was introduced in August 2021, marking the 50 year anniversary of co-education.
Jennifer Cunningham, assistant vice president for alumni relations, said she has found a new appreciation for Lehigh through Soaring Together.
“It’s just given me a much broader and deeper appreciation for Lehigh and how it got through that (co-education) change and continues to change and learn from its alums,” Cunningham said.
To expand female alumni and current student connections, a group of students created The Women’s Network at Lehigh in the fall of 2020. The organization encompasses over 140 campuses across 39 states with over 30,000 members, according to TWN’s website. Its goal is to connect women in professional collegiate environments and make networking and development accessible.
Amanda Sax, ‘22, former vice president of marketing for TWN, said having a strong community of women can alter your college experience.
“I think this is something that’s unique to Lehigh: I think that we (women) are pretty non-competitive with each other, which is really nice,” Sax said. “We all just want what’s best for each other, and we’ll encourage each other to succeed and help in any way that we can.”
Sax, who is a double major in marketing and business information systems, finds herself in an environment different from Exeter’s. Sax said she finds marketing to be largely female and she’s not afraid to speak up in the classroom.
“Being part of The Women’s Network, it makes you want to be ambitious and share your thoughts and your voices,” Sax said.
After graduation, Sax hopes to combine her degrees in the field of data analytics. She said she is happy to have had the opportunity to see Lehigh’s community of women develop over her time at Lehigh.
“I know within the 50 years that women have been here we’ve kind of transitioned from being a school that’s focused heavily on engineering to also business and arts and sciences,” Sax said. “Across the board, Lehigh has expanded and evolved, and I think with that, the understanding that women are in all fields and industries has been more broadly accepted.”
Sax’s experience at Lehigh mirrors Exeter’s in that the connection and community between Lehigh women seems to remain strong even fifty years later.
Exeter said she wants Lehigh women to take an empowering message with them as they walk across the commencement stage:
“When you get the degree it means you have the fortitude to have done the work,” Exeter said. “The last piece is having the confidence and belief in yourself that you can do it all.”