They reminisced about a campus nurturing enough to help them develop skills they would need to thrive in fields still dominated by men.
They recalled unwavering help and encouragement from women who graduated with them and in the classes that came before them.
And they wondered why their university would so suddenly -- in their eyes, at least -- give up the fight after having stood for single-sex education from nearly the days of the Civil War.
Reactions of surprise and anger flooded in from alumnae in Pennsylvania and beyond Wednesday in the hours after Chatham University, founded in 1869, announced it was considering admitting men into its undergraduate women's college for the first time in the college's history.
Online petitions were organized overnight. A Save Chatham Facebook page received more than 1,000 likes in its first hours.
School officials, including president Esther Barazzone, cited economic pressures and enrollment realities to explain why Chatham had become the latest women's college to consider the switch. The undergraduate college has seen enrollment slide from a peak of 675 students in 2008 to 588 this year, a trend that is expected to continue, officials said, leaving it as an even smaller subset of the university's enrollment of nearly 2,200.
In a letter to Ms. Barazzone, Nicole Hagan, Chatham class of 2007, said she was among the high school students who "wouldn't be caught dead at a girl's school if you paid me."
But meeting the school's alumnae and seeing the picturesque campus turned her decision, she said. Her four years at Chatham gave her small class sizes, the chance to study abroad and something no less important to her development.
"I was given the opportunity, as a woman, to stand up and ask questions, something I highly doubt I would have ever had the courage or confidence to do at a coeducational undergraduate institution," said Ms. Hagan, 28, a Durham, N.C., student finishing up a doctoral degree in environmental sciences and engineering at the University of North Carolina.
"Chatham made me the woman that I am today," she added.
Laura Fauble, 24, of Shadyside, a 2011 Chatham graduate in social work, was at work Tuesday evening when she learned the news. "I immediately felt this heavy-heartedness," she said.
"To me personally, Chatham provided a place where I could find myself. It was an opportunity not only to explore different career paths but to meet so many people in a nonjudgmental setting."
She went on to get a master's degree at the University of Pittsburgh and believes the single-sex education she received at Chatham had much to do with that.
"It wasn't until I got to Chatham that I learned that, yes, you can do whatever you want," she said. "You have the backing and the support and the constant encouragement of the Chatham sisters who graduated before you."
Nadine Banks, who graduated in 2008, said she and her classmates are upset because when the issue arose at an event last year tied to her class's reunion, alumnae were assured that while men might one day be enrolled in Chatham's Eden Hall campus, the main campus would remain single sex.
She said such decisions turn alumnae away.
"The bottom line is, will the comments of the community make a difference, or has the decision already been made?" she asked.
Ms. Barazzone told the campus Tuesday that the effort was not a retreat from the school's women-focused mission but an attempt to protect and strengthen the university as a whole.
Bill Schackner: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1977 and on Twitter: @BschacknerPG. First Published February 19, 2014 3:43 PM