In 1980, Georgia Nugent ’73 made Princeton history for the second time. She became the first alumna to hold a full-time faculty position at Princeton — assistant professor of classics. She called it akin to a fairy tale ending.
Nugent matriculated in 1969 as a member of Princeton’s first four-year co-ed class. She experienced a University that was unaccustomed to women as students. Although Nugent said she felt “very positive” about her undergraduate experience, she also said it was hardly “usual” compared with that of her male peers.
Reflecting a decade later on how the lives of Princeton’s female students had changed, Nugent said, “it seems to me that Princeton is much more normal than when I was here as an undergraduate.” Nugent went on to become president of Kenyon College (2003-13) and Illinois Wesleyan University (current), evidence that not only Princeton but the world continues to become “much more normal.”
’73 Coed Returns as First Alumna Professor
By Melissa Kiser Mesrobian ’75
(From the April 21, 1980, issue of PAW)
Assistant Professor of Classics S. Georgia Nugent ’73 is no Cassandra. So different is she in temperament from the Trojan prophetess of doom about whom she teaches that she laughingly describes herself as “terribly Pollyannaish.” Or, choosing a character from a happy-ever-after fairy tale, she says that being given an appointment here has made her feel “sort of like Cinderella. ... While I was in graduate school, I thought that maybe, when I was about 50 and established in my field, I might be invited to be part of the Princeton faculty. I never expected to have the chance so soon. I’m ecstatic!”
For a Cinderella, though, she knows the castle well. Nugent came to Princeton originally in the fall of 1969 as a member of the first coeducational freshman class. After earning her doctorate at Cornell, she returned last fall to become the first Princeton alumna to hold a regular full-time position on the faculty. (The first woman graduate to teach here was Kathleen S. Molony ’71, who entered Princeton in 1969 as a junior and came back in the spring of 1978 as a lecturer for a course in Japanese history.)
Not knowing when she applied in 1969 whether the university would be ready to accept women by fall, Nugent shared with many of Princeton’s first female students a feeling that there was a fairy-tale quality about their being admitted here. The sensation was especially strong for her as the first in her family to attend college and traveling so far from her home in Miami, Florida. “I loved it from the moment I arrived,” she recalls.
Nugent thinks that the “most publicized version” of what life was like for the early coeds — emphasizing the difficulty of surviving in this heretofore all-male world — reflected neither her own experience at the time nor that of many other women in her class. “I felt very positive about Princeton. I enjoyed the friendship with the professors. I was very happy with the clubs.” In fact, she regards her active membership in Tower Club as a major factor contributing toward her contentment with the social life at the university when women were few.
During the first year, 1969-70, she says, some professors (especially among those who had been on the Princeton faculty for quite some time) were a little uncomfortable having female students in their classes. “I thought, and still think, that their reaction was only human,” she says. “Almost all of them adjusted very quickly.”
Still, she notes, it cannot be said that the women in her class had quite the usual “Princeton experience.” “The people who were big fish in the small pond of high school come to Princeton and find there are many other students here who are just as bright and capable. Some of them tend to disappear; that is the usual story. For the women in ’73, though, it didn’t happen: We didn’t disappear, because we were unmistakable. In some ways that was probably a benefit to our education, since we were visible and the professors inevitably paid attention to us — unless you consider it a disadvantage that you couldn’t hide!”
Nugent, it is clear, never tried to hide. During her first semester, she took Humanistic Studies 201, then titled Man in the Western Tradition. Since her high school had had no programs in classical languages, the course provided her first exposure to ancient Greece and Rome. Her reaction to the “dead” civilizations was perhaps atypical: “This is fun!”
She began studying Latin the following semester. “I commiserate with my students now, because it does take so long before you can really read something.” She did not start Greek until her senior year, which made her a Johnny-come-lately as far as many graduate-level classics programs were concerned. “I was lucky that Cornell took a chance on me,” she says.
Nugent is reluctant to say that she has a special area of interest — “Now is the ideal time for me to keep learning about more and more areas — but she concedes that she has done a lot of work in Latin poetry. She wrote her thesis on Vergil and Dante; she likes the Latin epic, hence her interest in Vergil, as well as in Lucan and Statius, two poets from Rome’s Silver Age. She is also interested in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Last fall she taught precepts for Literature 121, Horner and the Tragic Vision, and she is teaching Latin 108, The Age of Nero, this spring.
Being on familiar turf has its professional benefits, too. Nugent spent 1978-79 teaching at Swarthmore College, replacing a professor who was on leave. “There, I was as new to everything as the freshmen were; here, being an alumna has been a big help, especially in advising students.” (The Board of Advisers is capitalizing on this advantage by asking her to serve, an unusual post for a new faculty member.)
She welcomes the advising opportunities, but laments that “as a professor, you see so little of your students’ whole lives … Still, it seems to me that Princeton is much more normal than when I was here as an undergraduate.” She notices especially that there are many more women students who are athletes, and that they are taking leadership roles in all areas of campus life. Such evidence of the comfortable progress of coeducation pleases her; it is apparent from her optimistic outlook on the university today that she finds the castle to be even better the second time around.