Historical Record of the Wellesley Students’ Aid Society

The Late 1800s The first meeting of the Wellesley Students' Aid Society was held in May, 1878 in one Mrs. Simpson’s parlor. The purpose of the meeting was described by the first elected secretary, H.E. Goodwin: "A fund to aid poor and deserving students to pursue their studies at Wellesley College has been so imperatively needed, that a few Christian ladies of Boston and vicinity were invited to gather…to devise ways and means for assisting this large class of young women."

Henry Durant, the founder of Wellesley College, spoke at this meeting, alluding to the fact that colleges for young men offered scholarships and funds "for the needy," while no similar provision had been made for young women "whose claims are greater than their brothers because fewer avenues for earning money are open to them."

The speakers must have struck a responsive chord in the gathering, for before the meeting adjourned the Students' Aid Society of Wellesley College was organized, a constitution adopted, and four officers and a Board of Managers elected!

The secretary went on to express her own thoughts. It was her vision that many Wellesley graduates, with the Society's help, should enter the honorable profession of teaching. She also made it clear that the Society would assist only those students exhibiting a seriousness of purpose: "Only those young women who are earnestly striving to help themselves, who are eager to learn, and who have shown such capacities for receiving and imparting instruction as will warrant the expenditure of money upon them, will receive aid from this society."

The Early 1900s Pauline Durant, wife of Wellesley College's founder, was personally interested in the work of the Society and carried it on for many years. When she was no longer able to continue, other alumnae made sure her that her work would go forward by formally incorporating the Society. In 1916 a charter was granted to the Wellesley Students' Aid Society by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for the purpose of "securing, holding, and dispersing funds to be loaned or given to students of Wellesley College whose personal means are insufficient for their support in college."

It is important to note that the decision was made to obtain a charter independent of the College. One of the alumnae who incorporated the Society, Miss Mary Caswell, explained the decision in this way: "More money is certainly needed. It is perhaps desirable to aid some [students] who are not aided at all [by the College]. It is certainly desirable to give some a great deal more money than they are already receiving." The Society’s independent and flexible structure allows it to offer help beyond that which the College proper is able to extend.

The 1920s By now, loans and grants are routinely being awarded to students. Each secretary's report in this decade alludes to gifts in the $100 to $300 range. It is interesting to note that the convictions of the first secretary are still being adhered to, in that only women who are performing satisfactorily in their studies receive aid. A 1925 report states: "It was voted that [a Class of 1926 student] be offered $250 when of diploma grade." Or: "It was voted that [a class of 1929 student] be given $100 gift and $100 loan for the second semester provided that her work in the first semester is satisfactory."

The 1940s The Society continues to supplement scholarship money awarded by the College. In 1942-43, for example, the College disbursed $126,430 to 376 "girls," and Students' Aid awarded $33,806 in gifts and loans to 213 of the 376.

The WSAS policy of assisting only students who display a certain standard of scholarly achievement seems to be softening. A 1942 report, for instance, states that "there are always a few girls who do not qualify for College scholarships because…their work has fallen below the necessary standard. Though this is not a large number, there are among them girls who are fine college citizens and who, given the opportunity to return to Wellesley, will pull up their work and make splendid alumnae. These girls the College is glad to have us help."

In this era, we also see the first written reference to the Society's policy of granting money peripheral to tuition assistance: "There are many other services that Students' Aid renders which make the life of the undergraduate more pleasant and profitable. We are available for emergency gifts and loans which cover the extras which were not anticipated in the close budgeting of scholarship girls, but which are so important -- books, doctors' fees, new glasses, and a short loan, like one we were asked for last year, to pay for an x-ray to discover what had happened to the safety pin one student swallowed (!) We have a few books to loan….We loan caps and gowns each year with a saving to each girl of about $12."

And a first reference is made to the Clothes Closet: "Our Clothes Closet is kept reasonably full of clothes that your own daughter would wear. These second-hand clothes, all in good condition…give girls a desired change of wardrobe and save them a great deal of money which they can use toward their fixed college expenses."

The preceding two paragraphs might well have been written to describe the present-day Society, so consistent are the services and purposes from this point on.

The 1960s For the first time, bed linens are offered to international students.

The turnabout of policy on students with low academic standing is now complete, with the inception of a $10,000 fund for the express purpose of helping "students of non diploma-grade."

The loaning of Bibles is replaced by the loaning of dictionaries. (This decision accompanied the College's decision to drop Biblical History as a required course).

In 1963, (the late) College Dean Teresa Frisch praises the Society in a campus speech: “Truly the college motto has found one of its most notable interpretations in the founding of the Students’ Aid Society and in its maintenance over the decades by dedicated alumnae who always have interpreted their task not in the letter but in the spirit.”

The 1970s No major change in purpose or policy appears. In 1970, scholarship grants are awarded to 226 students, loans to 338, and emergency funds to 160. Also, 21 tickets to the Boston Symphony Orchestra are given to students, and six typewriters, 152 dictionaries, 43 rugs, and 36 pairs of drapes are loaned.

The 1990s A selection of the emergency grants and short-term loans disbursed by the Society to students in response to a spectrum of requests in this decade is both varied and poignant:

  • medical costs for a broken finger -- her health insurance only covered one office visit.
  • application fees for the 24 medical schools to which she applied.
  • music lessons (from a special fund for this purpose).
  • the purchase of a plane ticket to fly to her brother's hospital bed -- he was the victim of a drive-by shooting.
  • the purchase of a plane ticket to fly home and assist her mother who was evicted from her home.
  • the purchase of a plane ticket to fly home to Ghana for spring break.
  • an unexpected dental bill for the extraction of wisdom teeth (this was the fourth eastern European student to request such help).
  • diagnostic tests for learning disabilities.
  • travel expenses for a Rhodes Scholarship interview.
  • the purchase of a plane ticket to fly home to her child who had been molested (this student was a Davis Scholar -- older than traditional age).
  • the training of a guide dog (the student is blind).
  • taxi rides to physical therapy appointments.
  • travel expenses to Spain (also Morocco, and Mexico) for thesis research.
  • eyeglass repair.
  • an overseas phone bill when her father suffered a stroke in Cameroon.
  • transportation for a job interview in New York City.
  • replacing belongings destroyed in a dormitory sewage back-up during the summer.
  • emergency relief when her ATM card wouldn't function as it was based in hurricane-ravaged St. Thomas.
  • purchase of food for herself and her children while out of work (this Davis Scholar lost her job due to the intrusion of her estranged husband, despite a restraining order).
  • fees for rabies shots and malaria pills for a semester in South Africa.
  • emergency relief since she and her family (from Jordan) were bankrupted during the Gulf War.

Tangible gifts have also been given to students: a Phi Beta Kappa key donated by an alumna, a bicycle donated by former College president Nannerl Keohane, sheets and towels (for a student whose storage box was stolen over the summer), and hundreds of suits, coats sweaters, and shoes from the Clothes Closet. Every first-year on financial aid also receives a book voucher.

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It is remarkable that most of the Society's financial health emanates from the generous ongoing support of Wellesley alumnae and friends who, year after year, make Student's Aid a philanthropic priority. WSAS is thankful to the thousands who write generous checks, and to those who render their giving in a more personal manner:

One alumna conducts a yearly "sidewalk search" and donates the found money to the Society. Another contributed for years in honor of her cat (with annual photos of the kitty). A now-deceased gentleman who had been married to two Wellesley wives (not at the same time!) gave annually in memory and in honor of them, all the while regaling us with his quirky poetry. Another alumna asks that her donation go to a student from a rural background, since the alumna's own college tuition was financed by the raising of "white Orpington chickens." Another accompanies her contribution with a "confessional" letter, telling how she stole food when she was at Wellesley, and would like to atone by helping a current "troubled" student. The stories abound, the donors represent all walks of life, but all share a warmth and generosity of spirit.

Beyond the changes inevitable with the passage of time, the spirit of Students' Aid has remained intact. Going back to 1878, one Reverend N. G. Clark described the Society’s mission as “assisting daughters trained for use rather than ornament.” It’s not so very different from its 2008 equivalent: “assisting women who will make a difference in the world.

Diane Speare Triant ‘68
Secretary, Wellesley Students' Aid Society