The sun is bright and the sky a brilliant cobalt blue. Campus is quiet outside Martin Hall, as a handful of students cross the tree-lined quad plugged into ear buds or chatting with friends.
Inside the building, the halls buzz with energy.
Fashion design and merchandising students in Assistant Professor Eunyoung Yang’s lab – a bright, open space reminiscent of the Project Runway set – are tailoring jackets. Across the hall in the resource room, high school interior design teacher Julie Watkins, ’07, prepares for a meeting of professional colleagues.
Around the corner, juniors in Associate Professor Jane Crowley’s interior design studio are using 3-D Revit software to design rooms, seeing their virtual spaces come to life on the screen.
At the same time, a “Foundations in Family & Consumer Sciences” lecture is taking place, and child development majors are gaining real-world experience at the Ellen Brewer Infant and Toddler Lab Home, a stone’s throw away from Martin Hall.
This is a typical Thursday morning in the Department of Human Environmental Sciences.
Many things have changed since the department first opened its doors on September 12, 1914. But one thing remains the same: its mission to improve the quality of people’s lives.
“Over the years, our department has grown and adapted to changing times to offer students a truly integrated experience,” said Deborah Tippett, professor and head of the Department of Human Environmental Sciences. “Throughout change, our commitment to our history and original mission remain steadfast.”
Tippett, who joined the department as an instructor and rose through the ranks to full professor, became head in 1995. She succeeded Dr. Marilyn Stuber, who had held the post for nearly 30 years. In fact, since 1922, the department has had only three heads.
This longevity trend also extends into the faculty. Today, nearly half of the department’s full-time faculty have taught at Meredith for more than 20 years.
“I think that one of the biggest strengths of our department is our faculty and their dedication to students,” Tippett said. “There is a consistent concern for meeting the needs of students, and not just their immediate needs, but also what will make them stronger, what will make them good professionals after they graduate.”
When Tippett joined the department in 1987, there were five full-time faculty members. Today there are 11, thanks in large part to her efforts to build capacity.
“When I came on board, I remember thinking this department is so ambitious, trying to do so much with so few people,” Tippett said. “And the department continued to grow. In fact, during the spring of my first year, five distinct majors were approved. I remember thinking, ‘How are we going to do this with so few people?’”
A similar sentiment probably crossed the mind of Katherine Parker, Class of 1910, who was chosen to lead the brand-new Home Economics Department in 1914.
The freshly minted department offered seven courses in areas such as “cooking” and “household management.” Growth was immediate, with new courses in textiles, domestic science, and domestic arts joining the catalogue by 1916.
According to an extensive history authored by Stuber, (and available on the College Archives section of the library website) a series of seven department heads served until 1922 and carried the department through the “clouds of World War I,” an influenza quarantine, the suffrage movement, and in her final years, the relocation of Meredith College from its original Blount Street location to its current home.
In 1922, the Trustees suggested that Dr. Ellen Brewer, a 1918 graduate, be hired despite the objections of her father, then-President Charles Brewer. She held the post until her retirement 43 years later. The Brewer years were marked by a slew of new courses and a new focus on teacher education. The Great Depression and World War II dominated her tenure in the 1930s and 1940s, during which time she led the department’s many contributions to the national response.
In a bright spot during that era, garments made and modeled by Meredith students won first place ten times in the “Annual Style Show” sponsored by State College (now NC State University). And in 1942, the fashion program was featured in a story in National Geographic.
With the end of the war came the baby boom and a decade of prosperity. As a result, the national home economics movement flourished.
“The decades of the 1950s and 1960s into the early 1970s were growth years for home economics, with enrollments burgeoning, new buildings being erected, and increased funds going into laboratories and equipment,” Stuber wrote. At Meredith, a new home for the department, Hunter Hall, was completed in 1959, followed by the Ellen Brewer Home Management House, which was completed in 1960.
Stuber took the department’s helm in 1967, during a period of extraordinary social change and political and civil unrest at home and abroad. The home economics paradigm shifted away from training homemakers to focus instead on professional preparation for employment outside the home.
“Women began to move into professional areas that had not been open to them before,” Stuber wrote. “They began to define themselves in ways other than as somebody’s wife or somebody’s mother.”
The department responded, adding new courses in child development and interior design as well as a household furnishings laboratory.
The “anti-establishment” movement fueled by events of the 1960s carried into the 1970s, causing home economics departments throughout the country to change their names to titles that didn’t include the word “home,” according to Stuber’s history. The decade also ushered in a movement away from a generalized field of study to specialized areas of professional education.
Meredith experienced a surge in home economics growth during the 1970s and early 1980s. Five new majors – child development, clothing and fashion merchandising, foods and nutrition, interior design, and general home economics – were approved in the department in 1988, giving students the opportunity to earn degrees in specialized areas of study.
In 1991, the Ellen Brewer Home Management House was converted to the Ellen Brewer Infant and Toddler Lab Home, a fully licensed and self-supporting learning environment for child development majors. By 1999, the department was approved to offer a licensure program in birth-through-kindergarten education.
The interior design program achieved a major milestone in 1994, becoming the first in the state to have a six-year national accreditation by the Foundation for Interior Design Education and Research (now the Council for Interior Design Accreditation). The interior design curriculum broadened its focus on residential and commercial design to include a strong emphasis on sustainability, technology, and global awareness. Meredith’s program is still the only CIDA-accredited program in the Triangle.
One of Stuber’s last acts in spring 1995 was to lead the department in a name change to Human Environmental Sciences, chosen with input from students, alumnae, and faculty. In 1995, Tippett became department head upon Stuber’s retirement, continuing the legacy of growth and innovation established by those before her.
Change was constant through the 1990s, and in 1997 the home economics major became Family and Consumer Sciences, a strong interdisciplinary major in which students take courses in all of the department’s program areas.
“The thing that I’ve worked the hardest on is building resources, both human and financial,” Tippett said.
Tippett’s hard work continues to pay off.
Endowments for the department today exceed $2 million, and there are planned gifts that exceed $5 million. In May of 2014, 40 scholarships will be awarded, totaling $92,363. Tippett herself has a major planned gift in the works to support student leadership opportunities.
In 2003, Tippett ushered the department through a major building renovation that transformed former second-floor chemistry labs into state-of-the-art classrooms, nearly doubling the department’s space in Martin Hall.
By 2010, the department had 14 full-time faculty, including its first male full-time professors. That same year also brought a change, when the nutrition major was reassigned to a new department because of a college-level reorganization. Nutrition joined with health and exercise science to become the Department of Nutrition, Health, and Human Performance.
However, Tippett added emphatically, nutrition alumnae are included in the department’s year-long centennial celebration, which culminates with a day-long tribute in April.
Today, the department has 22 percent of all declared majors at Meredith.
“We were the first four-year home economics program at a private college in North Carolina, and remain the only one in the Triangle,” Tippet said. “The quality and rigor of our academic program is exceptional. When I read course evaluations and students say the courses are too hard – that expectations are too high – I say ‘Good! That’s exactly what we want.’”
“We offer degree programs that may be tough, but in which students are going to be successful … programs that will make them strong while they’re here and strong as graduates.”
Outside the classroom, opportunities for real-world, hands-on experience abound. A large percentage of students in the department study abroad, and most all are engaged in community internships and best practices work. In one example, child development majors must complete up to 900 hours of field work in which they observe and teach young children.
The department also is home to a nationally recognized honor society, Kappa Omicron Nu, into which the top 25 percent of students who excel in academics, leadership, and service are inducted each year. In July 2014, the department’s chapter won the Outstanding Chapter Award from the national office.
“To have a large professional degree program within the setting of a liberal arts college is unique,” Tippett continued. “Our graduates are trained to be effective leaders and strong professionals, whether they choose to enter graduate school or to enter careers in their professions right away.”
There is no such thing as a typical graduate from the Human Environmental Sciences Department. These students go on to become teachers, fashion designers, buyers, store managers, product developers, early interventionists, directors of childcare centers, residential and commercial interior designers, child life specialists, and youth leaders – the possibilities are endless.
And the future is bright, Tippett said, as the department forges ahead into its next 100 years.
“I believe our department will continue to expand and change in new and exciting ways,” Tippett said. “I want to continue our growth in a way that’s thoughtful and relevant while meeting the needs of the students and the profession. We need to take an integrative approach that focuses on the big picture, and we must do it with integrity and commitment to our original mission to improve the quality of lives of families and individuals.”