225 Years of Pitt

The region’s largest and oldest university celebrates a milestone with “acts of caring“
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When Gwendolyn Hays graduated from high school in Potter County, the idea of a female engineer seemed laughable to some. It was 1960. After rejections from two colleges, she turned to the University of Pittsburgh, which welcomed her and her dream.

Pitt commemorates its 225th anniversary this year, and Hays is celebrating the university’s commitment to equality because it allowed her to become one of the school’s first female engineering students, and in 1964, one of its first female engineering graduates.

I love Pitt for what they did for me,” said Hays, now 69, from her Springfield, Va., home. “There are some colleges that wouldn’t allow women engineering students until 1975. Pitt was very good to me.”

At the time, the university had its share of faculty and staff who doubted her, but Hays, whose maiden name is Grimshaw, knew she had enough support to make it. The dean of engineering asked her what kind of engineer she wanted to be. “I told him I liked math better than science, and he said, ‘OK, you’ll be an electrical engineer,’ ” Hays recalled with a chuckle. “What interesting twists our lives can take. He was the one who chose my path. I just knew that I wanted to be an engineer.”

She worked 37 years as an electrical engineer and software designer, first at the National Security Agency in Washington, D.C., and then at Westinghouse in Baltimore, where she later became program manager of several radar development programs. “Pitt and I chose each other,” Hays said. “I am honored to be a part of such a wonderful institution.”

The university’s celebration this year of its 225 years is one without any grand galas or glitzy celebrations. Instead, through a series of brainstorming sessions, Pitt’s faculty and staff decided to find creative ways to better the Pittsburgh region. The result is a yearlong charitable drive known as 225 Acts of Caring — one act for each year of the university’s existence. The initiative involves faculty, staff, students and alumni. Such acts of community volunteerism include: blood drives, tree plantings, neighborhood and park cleanups, food pantry assistance, clothing donations, pet food donations and many more.

So far it has been wonderful,” said John Wilds, Pitt’s assistant vice chancellor for community relations. “We have a very generous group of faculty and students. We’re building better lives not only for our students but also for the communities in which we live.”

In April, more than 115 Pitt students assisted in Jumpstart, a childhood literacy program. In October, nearly 3,000 Pitt students will participate in neighborhood cleanups for The United Way Day of Caring. And a recent “Sock-​A-​Thon” led faculty and staff to donate 3,000 pairs of socks to various homeless shelters.

We have socks for men, women, boys, girls and toddlers and they go to shelters all over the region,” said Gwen Watkins, Pitt’s special events coordinator. “We believe in connecting with the community and giving back to the community. People don’t know how much you care until you show them, so we physically show the community how much everyone means to us. We don’t just talk about doing it; we physically do it.”

As part of the initiative, the university is also showcasing its involvement in its partnership with the Pittsburgh Public Schools’ Start on Success program by helping to mentor students with learning disabilities. The goal is to prepare students for employment after high school.

We have high school students placed in 10 offices across the campus,” said Tamara Hirth, Pitt’s community relations office administrator. “It really is a great thing.”

The university’s founding — on Feb. 28, 1787 — along with photos, videos and articles about its history, highlights and alumni, is being celebrated on a website: www​.225​.pitt​.edu. The site also serves as a link to the 225 Acts of Caring and provides an interactive tool that allows alumni and others to share personal Pitt memories.

William G. Beck wrote about how he flunked out of Carnegie Mellon University, enrolled at Pitt, and graduated with a BS in mathematics and one of the university’s master’s degrees in computer science in 1972. He went on to teach computer science at Duquesne University “…where I met my best friend, business partner, and wife,” Beck wrote on the site. “She has an MBA from the Katz Graduate School of Business. Together, we operated a small software company for 33 years and raised a family.”

Hays also wrote on the website about how Carnegie Tech and Clarkson University in New York would not accept a female engineering student. Even at Pitt, she had struggles, including, she said, when Pitt’s dean of women called her an embarrassment.

Maybe 1 percent of the professors and students thought I should be there,” Hays recalled. “The other 99 percent thought I was taking up a seat for a man who would get the degree and actually use it. They figured I’d get married and stay home. But I got married and also used my degree for 37 years. Pitt gave me a chance — I had to fight for it — but Pitt gave me my start and I am forever grateful. I love Pitt.”

Two hundred and twenty-​five years ago — several months before the U.S. Constitution was signed — the University of Pittsburgh started as the Pittsburgh Academy in a one-​room log cabin near Fort Pitt. Today, Pitt has more than 34,000 students and is recognized nationally and internationally.

The university has kept faith with that original founding concept that our role is to educate Pennsylvanians,” said Robert Hill, vice chancellor of Pitt’s public affairs office. “We have a growing reputation and growing stature that makes us appealing to people out of state. But the overwhelming majority of our enrollment continues to be Pennsylvanians.”

Ben Schmitt

Ben Schmitt graduated from Peabody High School in 1988 and Michigan State University in 1992 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. He worked as a reporter at the Concord Monitor, Savannah Morning News, American Lawyer Media and the Detroit Free Press and won a national Emmy award in 2008 for two video stories about pit bulls. He also helped report on the downfall of former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, which earned the Free Press a Pulitzer Prize in 2009. He is now a staff writer for the Tribune-​Review.

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