The college was founded in 1837 as the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary by Mary Lyon, a pioneer in education for women. A model upon which many other women's colleges were patterned, it is the oldest institution within the Seven Sisters schools, an alliance of East Coast liberal arts colleges that was originally created to provide women with education equivalent to that provided in the then men-only Ivy League. Mount Holyoke is part of the region's Five College Consortium, along with Amherst College, Smith College, Hampshire College, and the University of Massachusetts Amherst: through this membership, students are allowed to take courses at any other member institution.
Undergraduate admissions are restricted to women, transgender, and nonbinary students. It was the first member of the Seven Sisters to introduce an admissions policy that was inclusive to transgender students. However, all graduate programs are open to applicants regardless of gender. Unlike the open curriculums of the other liberal arts schools in the Five College Consortium, Mount Holyoke undergraduates are required to take at least one class each in the humanities, science or mathematics, social sciences, and foreign language, as well as a physical education requirement.
According to historian Amanda Porterfield, Lyon created Mount Holyoke to be "a religious institution that offered a model of Christian society for all to see." Students "were required to attend church services, chapel talks, prayer meetings, and Bible study groups. Twice a day teachers and students spent time in private devotions. Every dorm room had two large lighted closets to give roommates privacy during their devotions". Mount Holyoke Female Seminary was the sister school to Andover Seminary. Some Andover graduates looked to marry students from the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary before becoming Christian missionaries because the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) required its missionaries to be married before starting their missions. By 1859 there were more than 60 missionary alumnae; by 1887 the school's alumnae comprised one fifth of all female American missionaries for the ABCFM; and by the end of the century, 248 of its alumnae had entered the mission field.
Mount Holyoke Female Seminary received its collegiate charter in 1888, becoming Mount Holyoke Seminary and College. The change in admission from Seminary to College included fundraising by the Trustees, an overhaul of the entrance requirements, and course catalogue. Entrance exams were introduced at this time, scheduled in June or September at the college. In 1889, students traveling from the midwest could take these examinations in Freeport, Illinois, and within a few years, this was expanded to other cities. Many additions were made to the course catalog, and starting in the 1889 academic year, students could choose to pursue degrees of Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Science. Within 4 years, the seminary enrollment dropped from 269 to 8. In 1893, the seminary course was discontinued, and the new title Mount Holyoke College was authorized.
A movement towards what was referred to as cottage-style living started in 1889 by the New York Association after the change to Mount Holyoke Seminary and College. $15,000 was raised, and plans were put in place for Mary Brigham Cottage, with accommodations for the president and thirty students, with priority given to those in the collegiate course. At the time, two South Hadley families agreed to host boarders, and some students were permitted to live at the hotel. President Elizabeth Mead deemed both of these options unsatisfactory, and pushed the Trustees to build yet another cottage. Mrs. Mead was ready to relieve the students of a large share of the drudgery of domestic work that had made up a good portion of their studies since Mary Lyon's conception of the seminary. From 1895 to 1996 the trustees allotted funds for the employment of four women to wash the dinner dishes that had formerly constituted the task of eight or ten students.
For the Class of 2023 (enrolling fall 2019), Mount Holyoke received 3,908 applications, accepted 1,491 (38.2%) and enrolled 496. The middle 50% range of SAT scores for enrolled students was 1320-1450 for the composite, 630–720 for evidence-based reading and writing, and 640–770 for math, while the middle 50% range for the ACT composite score was 27–32.
U.S. News & World Report's 2021 rankings ranked Mount Holyoke the 34th-best liberal arts college in the nation, and tied for 30th for "Best Undergraduate Teaching".Kiplinger's Personal Finance places the school 37th in its 2017 ranking of best-value liberal arts colleges in the United States. In 2020, The Princeton Review ranked Mount Holyoke's faculty #1 in the nation, and ranked it #1 in the list of the Top 20 Best Schools for Making an Impact.
Mount Holyoke offers 50 departmental and interdepartmental majors, including the option to design a special major. The primary degree conferred is the Bachelor of Arts (BA) degree, for which students complete 128 semester credits (one standard course equals 4 credits). At least 68 credits must be earned from course work outside the major department, across the three curricular divisions: humanities, science and mathematics, and social sciences. Study of a foreign language and completion of a multicultural perspectives course are also required.
Mount Holyoke's membership in the Five College Consortium allows students to enroll in courses at nearby Amherst College, Smith College, Hampshire College, and the University of Massachusetts Amherst. They may also complete one of 12 Five College Certificates—among them African studies, Buddhist studies, coastal and marine sciences, cognitive neuroscience, international relations, and Middle Eastern studies—in lieu of a minor.
The calibration target for the NASA's Mars Curiosity roverChemCam; developed by MHC professor of astronomy Darby Dyar, the instrument is made of heterogenous ceramics similar to those expected on Mars, Dyar and her team have received multiple grants for analyzing Martian geology with this instrumentation
Three academic centers—the Weissman Center for Leadership, the McCulloch Center for Global Initiatives, the Miller Worley Center for the Environment—support the academic program through public lectures by visiting scholars, conferences on issues of pressing concern, mentoring and internship opportunities, and hands-on learning experiences. The Weissman Center's Speaking, Arguing, and Writing (SAW) Program provides opportunities for developing leadership and communication skills, including the ability to effectively frame, articulate, and advocate positions. The Community-Based Learning Program links students with community-based organizations in courses that combine analysis and action.
Mount Holyoke has study abroad programs and exchanges for full-year or semester study in France, Senegal, Costa Rica, Chile, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, Germany, Spain, and the UK, as well as a summer program in China and January Term programs in the Republic of Georgia and South Africa. The College is also affiliated with more than 150 study abroad programs in more than 50 colleges and students have the opportunity to petition any programs with which the College is not already affiliated. The College also encourages international internships and research for semester, year, summer or January terms. Each year more than 200 Mount Holyoke students, representing approximately 40 percent of the junior class, study for a semester or academic year at universities and programs abroad.
Twelve College Exchange Program
Through the school's membership in the Twelve College Exchange Program, Mount Holyoke students can study at one of the following 12 other schools for one semester or a full year:
Williston Library, Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley MA
Mount Holyoke's library includes more than 740,000 print volumes, 1,600 periodicals, and more than 140,000 electronic resources. Its first librarian was alumna Mary Nutting. Through the Five College Consortium, students have access to more than 9 million volumes. Computer support is provided. The MEWS (Mediated Educational Work Space) supports collaborative multimedia learning with group project rooms, wall-mounted plasma displays, a digitization center, and a faculty development area. In 2013, "Clear and Gold Tower," a glass sculpture by Dale Chihuly, was installed in the Williston Library's atrium.
Mount Holyoke administrator and art professor Rie Hachiyanagi made international headlines when she was accused of attempting to murder a regular member of the faculty in December 2019. Hachiyanagi allegedly used a fire poker, large rock, and a gardening shears to attempt to kill her victim. Hachiyanagi's alleged victim survived the attack.
John Payson Williston Observatory, Mount Holyoke College, ca. 1945–1955
Seminary Building, Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, viewed from the southwest, South Hadley, Massachusetts, 1886
The 800-acre (3.2 km2) campus was designed and landscaped between 1896 and 1922 by the landscape architecture firm of Olmsted and Sons. The campus includes a botanic garden, two lakes, several waterfalls, tennis courts, stables and woodland riding trails. It is also home to the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum which is part of the Five College Museums/Historic Deerfield and the Museums10. An independent bookstore, The Odyssey Bookshop, is located directly across from the campus in the college-owned Village Commons. Mount Holyoke has instituted “The Big Turn Off” energy conservation campaign. It also focuses on "green" building with five LEED certified buildings on campus. It has reduced its environmental impact by recycling 40% of waste and composting as well as using produce grown in the student-run organic garden in dining halls.
The Seminary Building (1837) contained classrooms, parlors and rooms for students and faculty, the original library, and a periodical reading room. A south wing was added in 1841, a north wing in 1853, a gymnasium and laundry in 1865. All were destroyed by fire in 1896. Upon the burning of the college building in September 1896, Treasurer Williston announced the pressing need for a new chapel building, a new gymnasium, and a series of cottage dormitories in the modern style. This style of separated buildings allowed for a flexibility of fundraising that was attractive to the Trustees, while still providing the students with the resources and accommodations they needed. In 1897, Mary Lyon Hall and Mary Lyon Chapel were built, as well as dormitories Brigham, Safford, Porter, and Pearsons. Blanchard Gymnasium was completed in 1899.
The school's iconic entrance, the Fidelia Nash Field gate, was dedicated in 1912. It was a gift of its namesake's children Helen Field James and Joseph Nash Field. Their brother Marshall Field had died in 1906.
Mount Holyoke is also close to the cities of Amherst and Northampton as well as to two malls: Hampshire Mall and Holyoke Mall. The Mount Holyoke Range State Park is also close to the campus. The college is named after the westernmost mountain of the range Mount Holyoke which was named by colonial surveyors in the 1600s.
Mount Holyoke is consistently named on "Most Beautiful College Campuses" lists, including The Huffington Post,The Princeton Review, and Architectural Digest. Its buildings were designed between 1896 and 1960. It has a Donald Ross-designed 18-hole golf course, The Orchards, which hosted the U.S. Women's Open in 2004.
The college has 21 residence halls as well as apartments and "annex" spaces in which to house students, and an overwhelming majority of students live on campus (98%). Each residence hall reserves a quarter of its rooms for housing first-year students with the exception of Pearsons Annex, which is reserved for living learning communities, and Dickinson House, which is reserved for Frances Perkins Scholars. Most residence halls house students from all four class years at any given time. In January 2018, Mount Holyoke opened a new centralized dining commons within the previously existing Blanchard Community Center. Previsouly, six dormitories on campus had dining areas inside of them, but the plan to consolidate these into one dining hall was made so that the college could shift to accept an unlimited meal plan and offer extended hours.  Residence halls have a variety of architectural styles and ages.
Students may enroll in classes at Amherst, Hampshire, and Smith Colleges as well as the University of Massachusetts, Amherst through the Five College Consortium.
Mount Holyoke offers a number of student groups and organizations. Themes include Art, Academics, Club Sports, Entertainment & the Performing Arts, Politics & Activism, Governing Organizations and Religious organizations.
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It is a tradition to give incoming Freshmen a plant from the Talcott Greenhouse.
The Faculty Show takes place once every four years, around 1 April; faculty members create a show which parodies themselves and their students.
The Junior Show (also known as J-Show) refers to a show created by Juniors (and a few professors) who parody life at Mount Holyoke. A common feature is a sketch mocking the president and dean of the college, along with well-known professors.
Mountain Day begins with the sound of ringing bells from Abbey Chapel on a beautiful autumn morning secretly chosen by the President of the College and all classes are canceled for the day and many students hike to the summit of nearby Mount Holyoke.
Holiday Vespers is an annual Christmas concert that has been held each year since 1899. In addition to the free performance held on campus in Abbey Chapel, each year the students perform in either Boston or New York City.
M&Cs, originally called Milk & Crackers, is now referred to as Milk & Cookies. M&Cs are a nightly snack provided by dormitory dining halls, but also refer to a student a cappella group, M&Cs (Milk and Cookies).
Big/Little Sibling is a reference to the pairing of juniors and "firsties" (or first-years) who are paired up to take part in organized events together. Coordinated by the junior class board.
Elfing is a tradition shared between sophomores and first-years. Secret sophomore "elves" leave presents and treats for their first-years throughout the week-long event. On the final day, the first-years get to meet their elves in person at a special M&Cs.
Founder's Day is held on the Sunday closest to 8 November (the date of the opening of Mount Holyoke in 1837). It was begun by Elizabeth Storrs Mead in 1891. The current version of the tradition includes ice cream being served early in the morning near Mary Lyon's grave. The current President of the College and select faculty are invited to scoop ice cream for the senior class who dons their gowns.
Convocation marks the beginning of the academic year. All students attend wearing their class colors, and seniors wear their graduation gowns to celebrate the start of their final year.
Canoe Sing is an event which takes place prior to commencement in which canoes are decorated with lanterns and paddled by seniors singing Mount Holyoke songs. They are joined by fellow graduating seniors on shore.
Baccalaureate is held in Abbey Chapel; the medieval German ode to Academe, "Gaudeamus Igitur" is sung by berobed Seniors and Faculty during the procession. Following convocation, Faculty line the path to Mary Lyon's grave. Seniors walk through this throng, to the grave (to place a wreath).
The Laurel Parade takes place the day before commencement. Graduating seniors wear white and carry laurel garlands, in a parade to Mary Lyon's grave. They are escorted by approximately 3,000 alumnae, also in white, who thereby welcome them into the Alumnae Association. Once at Mary Lyon's grave, the garland is wound around the cast-iron fence, and the Mimi Fariña song "Bread and Roses" is sung by all in attendance. White is a tribute to those who fought for women's suffrage. In 1970 students voted to replace the laurel with signs protesting the Vietnam War.
Mount Holyoke offers 13 varsity sports programs and six competitive club sports teams. The College is a member of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division III and the New England Women's and Men's Athletic Conference (NEWMAC) as well as the New England Rowing Conference (NERC). Facilities include a lighted synthetic multipurpose turf field surrounded by an eight-lane track with a nine-lane straightaway; Kendall Sports and Dance Complex housing a swimming pool and separate diving well; gymnasium with basketball, volleyball, and badminton courts; weight room; cardiovascular area; one-acre (4,000 m2) field house with indoor track and tennis courts; squash courts; racquetball courts; and three studios for dance, aerobics, yoga, and other activities; The Orchards, an 18-hole golf course (home to the 2004 U.S. Women's Open) designed by Donald Ross; and a 60-stall equestrian center with two indoor arenas (100' × 256' and 70' × 130'), an outdoor show ring, permanent fibar dressage arena, outdoor cross-country courses, and a boathouse finished for Spring 2010.
Wendy Wasserstein's 1977 play, Uncommon Women and Others, is based upon Wasserstein's experiences at Mount Holyoke of the early 1970s. The play explores the lives of the fictional characters Carter, Holly, Kate, Leilah, Rita, Muffet, Samantha, and Susie as they gather for lunch five years after graduation and reminisce about their collegiate days. The play was adapted into a television movie starring a then-unknown Meryl Streep.
Several feature films reference Mount Holyoke. Prominent among them are:
Dirty Dancing (1987), which is set at a summer resort in the Catskills in the summer of 1963. The protagonist, Frances "Baby" Houseman (named after Mount Holyoke graduate Frances Perkins), plans to attend Mount Holyoke in the fall to study economics of underdeveloped countries and then later to enter the Peace Corps. The film is screened annually for prospective first-year students.
A 1968 article in the Columbia University student newspaper Columbia Daily Spectator repeated a line from the 1964 movie Sex and the College Girl: "Smith to bed, Mount Holyoke to wed". This referred to the reputation of students from the two Seven Sisters Colleges. In the 1980s, Mount Holyoke students launched a campaign against a dating book and article written by two Princeton graduates that tell men how to pick up female students at women's colleges. Under the "Pickup Strategy" category, the article states: '"Low Key. Recall the Smith saying, 'Holyoke to bed; Smith to wed.''
The Mount Holyoke song, "We're Saving Ourselves For Yale", alludes to the Ivy League-Seven Sisters relationship, which amusingly relates tales of women who hold onto their virginity long enough to catch a Yale graduate to marry. The song features prominently in Wendy Wasserstein's "Uncommon Women and Others."
Harwarth, Irene B. "A Closer Look at Women's Colleges." National Institute on Postsecondary Education, Libraries, and Lifelong Learning, Office of Educational Research and Improvement, U.S. Department of Education, 1999.
Turpin, Andrea L (2010). "The Ideological Origins of the Women's College: Religion, Class, and Curriculum in the Educational Visions of Catharine Beecher and Mary Lyon". History of Education Quarterly. 50 (2): 133–58. doi:10.1111/j.1748-5959.2010.00257.x.