Among oldest schools in US, Allegheny College celebrates its 200th year



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MEADVILLE, Pennsylvania — Its history unfolds on 43 bronze plaques lining the pathway from the college's oldest building to the newest structure on campus.

The first tells the story of Allegheny College's birth: On June 20, 1815, the Rev. Timothy Alden Jr., a descendant of Pilgrim John Alden, and leading Meadville citizens establish what was then called Alleghany College.

Two hundred years later, the 32nd oldest college in the nation is celebrating its bicentennial by remembering and honoring that history — and planning for a stronger future.

It's a milestone that reminds the college of its obligation to past, present and future students, faculty and staff, President James H. Mullen Jr. said.

"The obligation we have is to preserve the best of the tradition that is Allegheny — academic rigor, a commitment to public service, a commitment to community service, to certain core values around civility and integrity and around an appreciation for the diversity of the world we live in — and then to create an educational experience that will continue to be relevant for students for decades to come," Mullen said.

Marking the moment

A yearlong bicentennial celebration that includes special speakers, events and academic themes continued Friday when the college opened its newest structure, Bicentennial Plaza, a 40-by-80-foot raised plaza on the lawn area in front of Schultz Banquet Hall. It's a space that will be used for talks, plays, concerts and special events, most notably the graduation ceremony for the class of 2015.

The historical plaques that line one walkway from Bentley Hall, the oldest building on campus, to the plaza are another legacy project celebrating Allegheny's 200th anniversary. Banners throughout campus and in town mark the moment, too.

"Two hundred years ago the nation was newborn," said Rebecca Ward, chairwoman of the Bicentennial Committee and assistant director of conference and event services. "The college was established at that time in history and it's still functioning well and still turning out amazing students. That to me is an amazing, almost overwhelming thought."

Ward remembers one student in particular who was taking a social issues class.

"He said, 'I need to do something about the problems in the world,'" Ward said. "It's young and it's idealistic, but (students) get a focus here and they have for so many years since the inception of the college."

The campus, different then, was a second home to Chester Sceiford, 70.

Many relatives are alumni, and several have served in administrative posts. His sister is a trustee emeritus of the college.

"Allegheny has been a lifelong part of my life," said Sceiford, who graduated in 1966 and now owns Sceiford Quality Fruit in North East. "I started coming to homecoming when I was probably 5."

Allegheny marked its sesquicentennial when he was a student, an event he remembers as a relatively modest celebration.

Fifty years later, "I'm very pleased with where Allegheny is," Sceiford said. "I consider Allegheny to be one of the best-kept secrets on the East Coast."

Larry Hailsham, a senior political science major and president of the Student Government Association, will be part of the first class to graduate from Bicentennial Plaza. There's a sense of pride in being a part of the bicentennial celebration, he said.

"It's all around cool, just cool," said Hailsham, 21. "Not many people can say they're part of a bicentennial class at any institution as of now."

For younger students, "it's about being part of the next 100 years," he said. "It's really cool to think about 'I can be part of the next Allegheny.'"

The future

Two hundred years after its founding, the college is healthy and strong, Mullen said, increasingly becoming an institution of national reach and influence. More international students are joining the student body, which now numbers 2,100.

In March, Mullen was elected chairman of the board of directors of the American Council on Education, the major coordinating body for the country's colleges and universities — a selection, he said, that reflects how respected Allegheny is in the higher education community.

The Allegheny College Prize for Civility in Public Life, created in 2011 to annually recognize two political figures, one liberal and one conservative, who argue passionately but with civility, has helped to push the small liberal arts college into the national spotlight, Mullen said.

"Allegheny is in a strong position and it's influencing national conversation in a way that's appropriate for a place that's been around for 200 years and has conducted itself with distinction through that time," he said.

One of the walkways between Bentley and Shultz halls has no bronze plaques, yet — space for history yet to be made.

The challenge for the next 200 years is to maintain its core liberal arts philosophy against demands for more specialized training, and to continue its commitment to public and community service, all in a relevant way, Mullen said.

"The great magic of Allegheny is a commitment to service, which is fundamental to the ethic of this place: To be a citizen of the world, to make a difference in the world, to use what you learn here to make the world a better place.

"When you put all that together that's a pretty powerful statement of what the liberal arts should be in America going forward."


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Information from: Erie Times-News, http://www.goerie.com

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