Davidson College Put the Wind in Her Sails

Tracy Charles Shenkman ’74

Shenkman in her Davidson dorm room in the fall of 1973

Tracy Charles Shenkman ’74 attended all-girls schools—four years of high school on the East Coast and two years at Wheaton College (MA)—before transferring to Davidson when the college expanded admission to women. The move brought not only a richer social life, but unexpected opportunities.

“We certainly had fun, but more than that, I didn’t see much happening in my development, and when I got to Davidson, I was suddenly around all these students who were intentional about their learning and what they wanted to accomplish,” she said. “I started to look at my own studies differently and my own reasons for being there. It was a real eye opener.” 

Shenkman’s eyes didn’t open overnight. A couple of weeks into her first semester in fall of 1972, she was walking around campus and didn’t see any students. When someone finally crossed her path, she asked where everyone was. The answer? The library.

Shenkman didn’t buy it, but she walked over to see anyway.

Shenkman with two of her sisters at commencement

Shenkman with two of her sisters at Commencement

“This probably sounds funny, but it had never occurred to me,” she said. “Lo and behold, everyone was there. It wasn’t ‘party on,’ it was ‘study on,’ so I thought I’d try it. Thanks to Davidson and my classmates, I learned how to become a student.” 

Another eye-opening moment happened with a knock on the door of the Main Street house where a handful of female students lived.

“These guys showed up and asked if we had any interest in joining the sailing team,” she recalled. “I gave them a lot of credit for taking the initiative, and my family had always been beach and water-oriented, so I was interested. I remember setting down my needlepoint and joining the team.”

Commencement program and cap and gown photo

Shenkman's cap and gown photo alongside the Commencement program

Shenkman quickly discovered a new passion. She was good. Very good. And she loved it. She sailed for two years as a Wildcat, becoming the first woman at Davidson College to letter in a varsity sport. 

“We learned from the ground up, all hands on deck,” she said. “We traveled to the College of Charleston and the Citadel and raced on the Chesapeake in Virginia. We won often enough to be eager to get out there each time for the next regatta.”

Sailing coach Hal Walker was a big part of the appeal for Shenkman and her teammates. 

“There are a lot of tactical rules in sailing, but it includes another dimension of education,” she said. “You must develop a physical sense of where the air is, the movement of the boat, the wave action and sail handling. Coach Hal was able to convey instructions to help us constantly correct as we improved. He had a solid knowledge of racing and a quiet, dry sense of humor. He was so well loved and respected by everyone on the team.” 

Sailing stuck with Shenkman and she continued after graduation, but classroom experiences influenced her even more. Her professors—and their significant impact on students—impressed her. 

Some favorites included Larry Ligo, Charlie Lloyd, Tom Clark and Herb Jackson, all of whom she says taught in non-traditional ways.

“It was as if they looked at us at the start of class and said with their eyes that they were about to stun us with things we didn't already know or understand, and we were going to walk together to the end of the story,” Shenkman said. “They didn’t teach; they actively shared their knowledge—and it knocked the barrettes right out of my hair.” 

Shenkman’s strong foundation and English major served her well in her career. She worked for IBM in various roles, helping companies develop office systems. She worked with people from a variety of professional backgrounds, from computer manufacturers to software writers to field engineers. 

“Davidson taught me how to be a student and how to learn,” she said. “I never would have imagined as a younger person that I would wind up working in the tech community. If I hadn’t gone to Davidson, I never would have taken myself seriously enough to jump into something like that and say ‘you know what, I can do this.’ It just takes a little commitment, a little time and the knowledge of who to call if you need help.”

Shenkman reflects on her time at Davidson with pure joy, saying she never once thought she made a mistake transferring in, even if she does recall the men working in the laundry at the time being a little uncomfortable washing women’s clothes. 

“I was so thrilled to have a laundry service,” she laughed. “But truly, I loved the beauty of campus, the intellect, the professors, the Honor Code, the personal responsibility. It was a really great experience that set me up for success.” 

Photo 50+ Years of Coeducation logo
50 Years of Coeducation at Davidson College

50+ Years of Coeducation

Davidson College will celebrate 50+ Years of Coeducation on campus November 3-5, 2023. The planning team will also host regional events and virtual opportunities in the weeks prior.

Please visit the website for additional information and to share your story ideas.