Dean of Students Emerita reflects on ‘progressive feminist’ Helen Schleman, Span Plan history

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Monday, August 8th, 2016

Those who knew her say Helen Schleman was decades ahead of her time in terms of women’s rights and gender equality.

Schleman became Purdue’s second full-time Dean of Women in 1947, a time when female students required a campus administrator’s permission to wear pants instead of skirts. At the end of World War II, the University received an influx of male student veterans who aimed to make use of the GI Bill, and yet the percentage of female attendees was dropping substantially, along with women’s graduation rates.

Enrollment numbers were readily available through Purdue Admissions and the Registrar. However, data pertaining to topics such as employee salaries, the ratio of women hired as professors, and the number of women promoted to associate and full professors, for example, was difficult to obtain.

Schleman holed up in Freehafer Hall with a pencil and yellow legal pad to personally examine University data and compile it in longhand. It was tedious research that validated what she already knew anecdotally. Aside from the expansive gap between men and women’s salaries and promotions, scores of women were quitting school early—probably to marry and raise families—while many others eschewed college altogether and took up low-paying positions as their husbands pursued degrees. Meanwhile, too many marriages ended in divorce, as the disparity in spouses’ education and professional success strained relationships.

The climate for women at Purdue was in stark contrast to what Schleman had experienced when overseeing females who volunteered for the Coast Guard during the war.

“Her military service was strategic in her mindset about what women could do and the responsibilities they could handle quite capably,” says Betty M. Nelson, Dean of Students Emerita who worked closely with Schleman at Purdue. “Helen, having seen all these capable women in the military, knew that they needed the opportunity to move forward and earn their own education.”

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Taken by Purdue photographer Dave Umberger in 1987 (Courtesy of Purdue Archives and Special Collections). This photo hangs in the Dean’s Conference Room in the Krach Leadership Center. From left: Helen Schleman; Beverley Stone; Barbara Cook; Betty Nelson; and Dorothy Stratton.

Schleman founded Span Plan in 1968, a program that would provide education and career counseling for wives of married students, as well as female graduate and nontraditional students who were returning to college later in life. She also served as the program’s inaugural director. After all, it was Schleman’s favorite mission—“keeping women from going to seed intellectually,” according to a release issued by the Purdue News Bureau.

Nelson says the program aligned perfectly with Schleman’s views on equality, which were never neutral. Aside from bringing notable feminist speakers to campus, such as Kate Millett, and handing out copies of The Feminine Mystique, Schleman insisted that every woman she came across develop her own “Go-To-Hell Fund.”

“She believed every woman should have money that was hers alone to control, because there was a possibility that one day she would wake up and decide she couldn’t stand her job any longer, or that she was no longer congruent with the fellow she was married to,” Nelson says. “She also understood that women statistically were going to live about five years longer than men and would likely need to support themselves one day.”

Moreover, at the time Span Plan came to fruition, the average woman was 35 by the time her youngest child was in school.

“They had at least 30 active, employable years left to them at that point, nearly a lifetime,” Nelson says. “Helen wanted to know what they were going to do with it.”

When Sandy Monroe thinks about Span Plan’s value and impact over the years, she can’t help but think of her own mother, who would have fit in the nontraditional student category.

“My mother was a farmer in Southern Indiana, and she enrolled in one class at a time at IUPU-Columbus; 23 years later, she got her degree,” says Monroe, director of University Undergraduate Academic Advising who worked in the Span Plan office when she was first hired at Purdue.

Monroe recalls another individual who took a path similar to her mother’s to earn a degree. Perhaps journey is a better word, because it didn’t happen all at once.

“Her name is Sharon and she is brilliant,” Monroe says. “She was able to take one class per semester thanks to the Span Plan grant, which gave her the confidence to apply for additional grants and aid. She became a registered nurse about 20 years later and had five children by the time she completed her degree. Like my mother, Sharon had life events and family obligations that often took priority, but education was always something she could pursue for herself.”

Span Plan is the kind of program that changes lives forever, Monroe says, the effects of which ripple through families for generations.

Having read Span Plan scholarship essays for years, Nelson says the women (and men, as of 1976) who apply for the program’s financial assistance often possess a drive and determination that leaves her in awe.

“It takes a level of audacity and perseverance to hold on to the dream of education when the barriers are stacked against you,” Nelson says. “It’s one thing when you graduate high school and enter college in flow with all your friends, but there are so many others for whom this has been a long time coming. It’s like the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow.”

To this day, Span Plan provides an opportunity for Purdue and the community at large to support nontraditional students—those who take a break from formal education, marry and start a family or become financially emancipated from their parents. It’s a mission that aligns with Nelson’s principal belief in fairness, her concern that everybody be given a chance (and maybe two).

“Span Plan is another opportunity for us, our community and culture, to say that these students matter, that they are just as important as those who go about education the traditional way,” Nelson says.

And the stories of those who have been empowered by Span Plan continue to resonate, says Erin Britton, assistant director of Span Plan.

“One of our recent Span Plan scholarship recipients, Rachel Jackson, had the ability to participate in an internship because the scholarship provided her the financial flexibility to live away from home for the summer with her children,” Britton says. “These are opportunities that traditional-aged college students regularly take part in, but nontraditional students don’t always have the same access.”

Peggy Favorite, current director of Span Plan, says a strong partnership with the Purdue Women’s Club (with special credit to the early advocacy of the late Elizabeth “Swiftie” Hicks), is critical in expanding the program’s reach and promoting its mission. With approximately $150,000 in scholarships and grants to be distributed this year alone, Span Plan is on track to support more nontraditional students than ever before.

“The rich history of Span Plan guides us into the future,” Favorite says. “New initiatives, including a new mentoring program and an intensified focus on meeting the needs of students with children, continue the tradition and raise the awareness of the value of nontraditional students. They are some of the hardest working, most highly motivated students on campus and their education can lift their families to a new level of success.”

For more information on Span Plan—housed in Student Success—or to learn how to become a donor, visit

To learn more about Helen Schleman, Betty Nelson, and other deans who were instrumental in the development of the program, check out The Dean’s Bible: Five Purdue Women and Their Quest for Equality, by Angie Klink.

Writer: Andrea Thomas, Communications Director for Student Success, 765-496-3754,

Last updated: Aug. 8, 2016

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