History and beauty lend a character to Willamsburg, Virginia. That’s epitomized nowhere quite like the College of William & Mary campus. From the picturesque Crim Dell bridge to the trio of U.S. National Historic Landmarks that form the Ancient Campus (the Wren Building, the Brafferton building and the President’s House) to countless heavily wooded settings, the campus is one awe-inspiring sight after another.
William & Mary is the second-oldest college in the country. Yet its as relevant and influential today as when it opened its doors half a century before the birth of Thomas Jefferson, the first of four Presidents educated there. This so-called “Public Ivy” school is a leading research university in the disciplines of law, business, education, physics and others. As you stroll the campus, the understanding that you’re in a special place is visceral as well as intellectual.
William & Mary history
The original plans for a college in the area date to 1618, just over a decade after Jamestown Colony was founded and three years before the arrival of the Mayflower up the seaboard. The college was to have been built in Henrico, but the initiative ended with the eradication of that city in a 1622 Indian attack. Soon after the settlement became a royal colony, meaning no college could be built without consent of the crown. Consent came February 8, 1693, when King William III and Queen Mary II of England signed the charter for a “perpetual College of Divinity, Philosophy, Languages, and other good Arts and Sciences.” The doctrine called for the college to be founded in Williamsburg. And along came College of William & Mary.
The Sir Christopher Wren Building was constructed in 1695, before the actual town of Williamsburg. The building, also known as just the College Building, burned down three times, but was rebuilt after each disaster within its original walls – making it the oldest building in the United States. And not only is the campus filled with historic buildings, it has ties to some of the nation’s Founding Fathers.
George Washington received his surveyor’s license through W&M when he was 17. He later returned to the College as its first American chancellor. Thomas Jefferson received his undergraduate degree from the college. James Monroe and John Tyler are also alumni.
A few more cool facts: W&M is the first U.S. institution with a Royal Charter, the first law school in the United States, the first instance of student honor code and the was the first to institute a Greek society. The Phi Beta Kappa fraternity was founded at the College of William & Mary in 1776.
In 1906, the college became state-supported. It became coed in 1918. Ten years after that, John D. Rockefeller Jr. picked the Wren building to be restored to its original 18th-century appearance as part of the Colonial Williamsburg restoration.
William & Mary traditions
So in case you haven’t noticed, the college has a lot of history. It also has a few cool traditions. At the start of every fall semester, W&M hosts an Opening Convocation to mark the official start of the academic year. It is a chance for the entire community (faculty, staff and students) to join together and participate in a picnic dinner, live music, and of course, a speech.
The Raft Debate is a coming together of faculty members representing different academic disciplines at the college. Four professors are put on a stage under the scenario that they are stranded on an island with one tiny raft. Who gets the raft to sail back to civilization? It’s up to the professors to argue why they are the best man for the job. Fun, creative and a great way to get students to interact with the teachers.
Seniors get to ring the ceremonial Wren bell when they finish their final college course. This is one of the most exciting and well-wishing traditions, as the campus rings with the echoes of the bell throughout the final days of each semester.
The College of William & Mary hosts public events, performances and festivities on campus throughout the year. To compare the event schedule with your vacation planner, visit the college’s Events Calendar.