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Once a Peace Girl, always a Peace Girl

In 1996, the Peace College graduates wore white dresses, carried roses and gathered around the fountain on the front campus. Now the graduates, which include men, wear green robes.
In 1996, the Peace College graduates wore white dresses, carried roses and gathered around the fountain on the front campus. Now the graduates, which include men, wear green robes. N&O File Photo

On the eve of my 18th birthday, my parents and I turned onto Wilmington Street in Raleigh and I stared straight into the eyes of my future. At the end of the street stood a great lady, her large white arms and red brick skirt drawing me like a mother welcoming her child home. Lured into the lap of this great lady, I would live with her for two years, as she nurtured and scolded me, challenged and celebrated me, teaching me about God, and about my world and the truth about myself.

That day I became a Peace Girl. With my belongings housed in a room with polished wood floors and an orange and green plaid bedspread to match my roommate’s, I stared out a window onto a green lawn, at its center a fountain that would take on great meaning for me. I unpacked my shampoo and sheets and towels, along with a crazy dream of being a writer.

Within weeks I was sipping coffee with new friends in the crowded cafeteria and writing about my dream in my journal. “I’d bet on that dream,” my professor wrote on that entry. She actually thought I could do it? I still have the journal, and though the writing is pretty abysmal, I treasure these first attempts to find my writer’s voice.

The next spring, the editor of Prism, the literary magazine, tapped me to take her place. I had never even taken a creative writing class and had no clue what to do.

In my first writing class, the professor asked us to “find” a poem on the lush front lawn. I found an ant and wrote about it, and within weeks, it was as if God had turned on a spigot, and poems and stories poured. I wrote on notebooks and napkins and the edges of the newspapers, inventing stories I shared with other student writers. Around the writer’s table I learned how to encourage, how to pull the story out of myself and others – a skill I use still. I felt like my heart would burst with the promise of it all.

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Susan Byrum at her 1977 graduation from Peace College. Courtesy of Susan Byrum Rountree

My fellow Peace Girls found their voices, too. In education. In art. In fashion. Music. Medicine. Law. Their best selves began emerging – not sheltered by Peace, but challenged. They spoke in class without fear, broke the rules sometimes (well, often), challenged each other at backgammon and basketball and politics.

And I learned a lot about God. Some from studying the Bible, but more often in Wednesday chapel. It’s there, in my journal, how on one of those Wednesdays, the chaplain talked about the questions we would ask ourselves: What is our life’s passion? Whom will we love? What is our concept of God? Forty years later I’m still asking the same questions.

Not every day was grand in those two years. I was chosen for the honors English program, but the thesis I wrote (I think it was on Faulkner ... whom I still don’t understand) was not honors quality. Oh, how I disappointed my professor, how I had short-changed myself.

And I also learned this: All those young women together in one place sometimes can backfire. I wasn’t always a good friend to my Peace sisters, and I am ashamed of that. Sometimes they weren’t kind to me, and all these years later, both truths still cause ache.

In 1996, Peace added added a baccalaureate under the direction of a woman who had graduated with me. Every Peace girl I knew felt this was an important move, a way to bring our alma mater into the new century, educating a new age of Peace Girl.

A few years ago I returned to Peace for a writing residency, and I was once again the student. We met in a classroom that had not been built when I was there, and among the dozen or so students in my class, I was the only alum. Surrounded by what felt like home again, my voice came through more loudly than it had at 19. And though I had been a professional writer for more than 20 years by that time, I was surprised to find my heart filled once again with the promise of what could be.

In 2011, a new leader came to Peace and in her wake, long-standing faculty and staff were fired, and programs that had been the benchmark of the Peace curriculum disappeared. She became William Peace and, in 2012, after more than 150 years of creating strong women, admitted men.

I’m not opposed to change, but the drastic nature of the makeover felt wrong. I mourned the future of a small-town girl like me who wouldn’t know my Peace. Alumnae protested to no avail, and many pulled their support.

Today there is a new president, and though I’ve not met him, I hear that he is mending what his predecessor broke apart. That’s good news. And though the graduates now wear green robes instead of white dresses, there are still Peace Girls among them, surely.

A few weeks ago, the women of the Class of ’77 found news of our 40th reunion in our in-boxes. We’d met for our 10th, 20th and 30th reunions, but enthusiasm for this year waned. Our Peace we knew was no longer ours, and few registered to attend.

Last week, though, a handful of Peace Girls gathered for lunch in a reimagined shopping center near our alma mater. A hipster market now stands in the spot where on spring Friday afternoons, we’d escape class to a dive neighborhood bar, grab a cold beer and punch in some tunes on the best juke box in Raleigh. Now, over gourmet sandwiches, we scoured our yearbook, searching for the stories of all Peace had given us. We came as girls with dreams and left as women who have them still, and to me that seems enough.

Susan Byrum Rountree will always be a Peace Girl. She can be reached at susanbrountree@gmail.com.

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