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War and Wisdom: A History of Mary Washington College during World War II

(left to right) John McDowell, Savannah Alexander, Haley Gosman, Eliza Vegas, and Neonya Garner

Eliza Vegas

We got the chance to do a special interview with Eliza Vegas from the University of Mary Washington (UMW). As a 2024 Historic Preservation graduate, Eliza brings a unique perspective to a Digital History class project – Exploring the history of Mary Washington College during World War II. Joining her on the project are fellow UMW students Savannah Alexander, Neonya Garner, John McDowell, and Haley Gosman, who collectively represent a diverse mix of academic backgrounds, including History and English: Creative Writing.

Together, under the guidance of their professor, Dr. Jeffrey McClurken, this dynamic group has delved into the intriguing past of their campus during a pivotal era in history. Their project, a comprehensive digital archive, aims to illuminate the experiences of students at Mary Washington College during the war, shedding light on their contributions to the war effort and daily life on campus.

Below Eliza dives into their journey and process:

Tell us about you and your fellow researchers for this project.

My name is Eliza Vegas, I am a graduating senior this year at the University of Mary Washington (UMW). My group members are also all UMW students with a majority also graduating this year. One awesome thing about this class project is that the course Digital History covers many requirements, so you get a lot of students from various majors! Three of my group members, Savannah Alexander, Neonya Garner, and John McDowell are all History majors, whereas Haley Gosman is an English: Creative Writing major, and I am a Historic Preservation major. We have more information about us on the About section of our website.

What inspired you to create a project focused on Mary Washington College during World War II?

Our professor for the class, Dr. Jeffrey McClurken had come up with three project ideas for the students to rank in order of which project they were the most interested in. My group and I happened to express the most interest in the Mary Washington College (MWC) during WWII project! We were all so interested in it because we were curious about what the campus was like during the war. Going into this project, none of us had learned much about what MWC was like during the Second World War, so this project was a great way to satisfy that curiosity. 

What was the main goal of your project?

Taken from our mission statement, the main purpose of our website was to display the experiences of Mary Washington College students during World War II through newspapers, oral histories, and yearbooks. There is the inclusion of both their efforts towards the war itself and what was happening on campus in the day-to-day. The material within this website allows our audience to further their research into the topic by making the material we found easier to access. Essentially, our goal was to create a digital space to provide easy access to materials related to MWC during World War II  for anyone interested in learning more about it. We made sure to curate a wide range of materials from student life to the Fredericksburg Flood of 1942. 

Can you share a particularly surprising or impactful piece of information you discovered during your research?

Neonya Garner was our main group member in charge of conducting research and writing all the small information summaries. One piece of information she shared with the group was that, during WWII, Mary Washington College had plane watchtowers. Students were so worried about air raids that they installed watch towers on both ends of campus and had juniors and seniors operate them. Sadly, there was no pictorial evidence of this, so it was left out of the website. However, to pay homage to this fact, I designed our website logo to have a watchtower graphic on it!

Did you have any challenges while working on this project, and how did you overcome them?

Our greatest challenge at the start of this project was figuring out how we were going to curate and organize all the information and materials we had collected from UMW’s Special Collections. Special Collections was incredibly helpful and they did such an amazing job recommending materials we could use for our website, but once we had it all we had to go through the task of figuring out what to and what to not include on our website. We ultimately were able to overcome this by brainstorming a few categories to break up our content. These categories ended up being our pages on Student Life, Assisting in the War Effort, and the Fredericksburg Flood of 1942. We thought these categories would be a good way to cover both aspects of the war on campus, that being how students still participated in typical college activities, and how they assisted in helping the war effort. The Fredericksburg Flood page came later after being notified by Jim R. Gaston that it would make a great addition to the website since many students were involved in flood relief. 

How did you decide on the layout and design of the website to make the information accessible and engaging?

Our website is sourced through WordPress, which is a user-friendly webbuilder. One great aspect of WordPress is that it comes with a bunch of available themes to choose from. Therefore, designing the layout ultimately came down to browsing themes and figuring out which one we found the most visually appealing. The theme we ended up using is called Inspiro, which we thought did a good job of being eye-catching to an audience with the use of photo-based headers and large title text. Additionally, we knew putting heavy amounts of text on our website may not be as engaging, so we worked to create a balance of visuals with small, yet informative summaries. As for accessibility, we ran our website through an accessibility checker and altered design features accordingly to what the checker determined was not the most accessible. More often than not, this was making sure our text had good color contrast and that all images had alternative text, so screen readers can read off the description of the images we have. 

What was your favorite part of this project?

I know it is a bit cliché, but seeing our work come together to create such a wonderful final product was truly the best part of this project. Everyone worked so hard on all their individual parts that having it all connect together was really rewarding. I will say on a more individual level, getting to do this interview was such a highlight! I was in charge of advertising our website, so having this opportunity to promote our website to the greater Fredericksburg community is gratifying. 

How do you hope your project will impact or contribute to the understanding of Mary Washington College’s role during World War II?

We hope to bring more awareness to how involved in the war effort the students at MWC were during WWII. From raising thousands of dollars in war bonds and stamps to creating a calvary troop to defend Fredericksburg in case of attack, the women at MWC proved that they meant business when it came to supporting the U.S. In bringing more awareness, we hope that community members and students alike may utilize our website to conduct their own deeper research about the topic!

What have you learned about Mary Washington College and its students during World War II that has resonated with you personally?

Seeing how campus traditions persevered despite the war resonated with me the most. Some of these traditions are still celebrated today such as Devil-Goat Day, so getting a glimpse into how that event was being put on despite a world war was truly interesting. This just shows how Mary Washington’s students’ determination and endurance have transcended throughout the decades. 

What advice would you give to other researchers interested in undertaking a similar historical project?

My main advice is to utilize web tools to their fullest capabilities! It may seem daunting, but creating an online space to showcase your work and reach a larger audience is such a great skill to have. Additionally, if you do go the route of producing a website, make sure to break your project down into smaller sections. It is easy to overwhelm an audience by having too much text on one page and not breaking information up, so you must make your project easy to digest for a large audience of different demographics. 

Anything else you would like to share?

We are all just very grateful for the opportunity to promote our work through the Fredericksburg City website! Thank you so much and we truly hope the community enjoys what our website has to offer. 


You can view the Mary Washington College during WWII here.