Lanterns light the way for legacies at Pitt


Victor Wu

The ceremony was held in Heinz Memorial Chapel. (Photo by Wenhao Wu | Assistant Visual Editor)

Alka Patel, alumna and keynote speaker at Pitt’s lantern night ceremony, said she was sure the young women in the audience were feeling a number of emotions — excitement, nervousness and maybe even a little bit of fear.

“Or perhaps that’s just the mothers in the room,” she said with a laugh.

More than 1,200 members of the Pitt community gathered at Heinz Chapel for the University’s 97th annual Lantern Night ceremony Sunday evening. Among them were hundreds of first-year women and their mothers, grandmothers, sisters and other female relatives who had preceded them at Pitt.

At the event, these alumnae served as flame bearers, passing along the “light of learning” by lighting the lanterns given to the new women on campus.

The young women who filed into Heinz Chapel and the tent outside it were met by the smiles of Pitt alumnae glowing softly in the light of their candles.

One such flame bearer was Nancy Allen Wood —  a woman who, like her mother, graduated from Pitt’s School of Nursing. She was at the event to light the lantern of her daughter Laurel — the third person in their family to attend Pitt.

“Pitt’s a wonderful school, so I was very happy that she chose to come here after me and her grandmother, especially with all the changes that have been made,” Wood said.

Lantern Night dates back to 1920 and is Pitt’s oldest tradition. It began as a welcoming ceremony for women new to the University. In the tradition’s early years, first-year women were invited into the secretary of the University’s home, where they would each receive a candle to signify the beginning of their higher-education journey.

The women would then embark on a procession across campus — all in white dresses with candles in hand — to the University Women’s Center, located in the Sarah Heinz House, a building dedicated exclusively to women’s activities that was located by Alumni Hall during the early part of the 20th century.

As more women began to attend Pitt, the tradition grew in popularity and it eventually moved to the Cathedral of Learning Commons Room and then to Alumni Hall. Now first-year women make the journey with their lanterns from the Cathedral of Learning to Heinz Chapel.

Alexandra Curtis, a first-year attendee looking to study political science, was not the first in her family to attend Pitt, or to be so excited to be a part of its community. Curtis fondly recalled how her grandmother, now deceased, loved her time at Pitt so much she ended up staying in the city near it, eventually marrying a Pittsburgh native in Heinz Chapel.

“She was a big motivator in me coming to Pitt, because she enjoyed her time here studying and what the city had to offer,” Curtis said.

Curtis said she and the rest of her family believe creating a legacy at the school her grandmother loved so much would be a good tradition to start.

“My parents are really happy that I’m getting an education where she did, and I think it’d be awesome if my kids and grandkids came here,” Curtis said.

Chancellor Gallagher, in his speech at lantern night, said that lantern night and other traditional events on campus are hallmarks of Pitt’s community.

“They give us an instant common ground together, and an automatic bond to share while we are here on campus,” Gallagher said. “But it lasts until long after we’ve moved on to pursue our own paths, and to live out our University’s mission of leveraging new knowledge for society’s gain.”

As Chancellor Gallagher recounted in his speech, the event was inspired by the story of Margaret and Stella Stein — two sisters and the University of Pittsburgh’s first two women to enroll at the University, called the Western University of Pennsylvania at the time.

In 1898, these two women tied for first place in their classes. But at that time, there was a rule that only one person could serve as valedictorian.

“The decision for who would hold this esteemed title came down to a coin toss,” Gallagher said. “Stella won.”

But Margaret didn’t truly lose — she went on to become the first woman to complete a graduate degree at Pitt, when she completed her studies in 1901. Both Stein sisters went on to become educators.

“Lantern night is about the light of learning,” Gallagher said. “It celebrates the spark of scholarship that the Stein sisters lit more than a century ago, one that is still burning brightly at the University of Pittsburgh today.”

A University of Pittsburgh alumnae passes on the “Light of Learning” to a new student. (Photo by Kyleen Considine | Visual Editor)

Corrine Chernich, a first-year in Pitt’s school of nursing, said she is also the first in her family to attend Pitt and hopes to not be the last.

“I joked to my friends, ‘my kids don’t have an option,’” she said. “I really like the campus and the opportunities here, and it’d be super cool to build a legacy.”


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