Perspectives Archives | Ashley Hall

As young women committed to serving their country, sisters Michaela White ’14 and Maya White ’17 have excelled on their shared journey to become naval officers. For both, some of their most valuable lessons in leadership began at Ashley Hall.


Bracing against the wind on the deck of the Roseway, Michaela White ’14 gazed steadily toward the horizon. For twelve days, she and fellow students, led by Upper School faculty member Dr. Roscoe Davis, had worked as part of the crew sailing a schooner on a 1500 mile transit from St. Croix. The capstone of Ashley Hall’s Offshore Leadership Program, the demanding open water voyage had challenged them all to push past their limits and tackle difficulties head on. Now, with Charleston slowly rising in the distance, she smiled in triumph: They had arrived.

“I did not know it then, but that experience was pivotal for me in my young life,” said Michaela. “The Offshore Leadership Program influenced my leadership skills because it forced me into scenarios that I had never been in before and that I literally could not get out of, seeing that I was stuck on a ship in the middle of the ocean. It taught me lessons such as perseverance and resilience that I do not think I could have learned in any other environment. I am beyond grateful that I was able to have an experience like that. It was the push I needed to solidify my desire to join the Navy.”

Now an Ensign in the U.S. Navy, Michaela’s path to that momentous Offshore Leadership Program voyage began when she and her sisters moved with their parents, Mike and Alice White, from Texas to Charleston in 2007. The three White girls—Michaela ’14, Madeline ’16, and Maya ’17, all enrolled at Ashley Hall. From the first, it was an environment that fostered self-reliance and tenacity. “I was engaged, challenged, and supported every single day at Ashley Hall,” emphasized Maya, who entered as a third grader and is now a midshipman in her final year at the U.S. Naval Academy. “I carried this momentum through my ten-year tenure at the School. My favorite subjects quickly became math and science, and I was lucky to have the support of my teachers every day. I was hungry for more, and Ashley Hall was the perfect place for me to expand my horizons.”

Like her sister, sixth grader Michaela thrived in the supportive atmosphere. “Ashley Hall gave me the experiences to be confident in the classroom and encouraged me to participate and challenge the ideas set forth in class in order to further my learning and work on my critical thinking,” she affirmed. “Had this confidence in the classroom not been ingrained in my mind from middle school and on, I think my time in college would have been much quieter.”

Both women excelled with a full slate of academics, sports, and extracurricular activities, including Student Council and track. Michaela also undertook volleyball, while Maya focused on golf. “Serving as student body president during my senior year was an extremely formative leadership experience and taught me how to be a liaison to meet the needs of those above and below me,” said Maya. The lessons in balancing multiple responsibilities were also invaluable. “Ashley Hall helped prepare me for the rigors of the Naval Academy because it taught me time management,” Michaela noted.


On her first day of class at the Naval Academy, Maya White ’17 entered a room filled with thirty other plebes, all of whom were male. She had spent the last seven weeks undergoing the intense physical and mental training of Plebe Summer, a stringent induction into the life of a midshipman. Now, the equally demanding academic component of her college experience was about to begin. Without hesitation, she walked to the front row and sat down. Within five minutes, she was raising her hand to answer the professor’s questions and vigorously taking notes. Exuding confidence, she was fully in her element.

“Ashley Hall made the classroom a space where I could thrive, and I haven’t looked back since,” Maya explained. “The biggest advantage I gained from graduating from Ashley Hall is my confidence. I surprise my peers every single day with my lack of hesitation in the classroom, at a conference table, and on summer training.” For both women, a deeply held belief in themselves has built a solid foundation for their ability to lead. During their Naval Academy journey, both have held company-level leadership positions, with Michaela serving her final year on the brigade-level as the Operations Officer for Sea Trials. Maya is currently the Executive Officer for the 17th Company.

“Ashley Hall helped shape me into a female leader because I truly believe that it gave me the confidence to succeed based on the high frequency of interaction and participation in the classroom,” said Michaela. “All of my teachers encouraged participation, which gave me the confidence to voice my opinion or push myself out of my comfort zone to answer a question even if the answer was incorrect. It was this little push that I carried with me through college and into my professional life. I also try to make sure I provide my input while on a project even if I may be the lowest ranking person in the room.”

Now stationed in Norfolk as a Public Affairs Officer at the Navy Public Affairs Support Element East, Michaela applies that same confidence to her work, whether she is helping to plan the 20th commemoration for the attack on the USS Cole (DDG -67) or aiding in VIP tours aboard the USS Gerald E Ford (CVN -78). Once she graduates in May, Maya plans to return to Charleston to attend Nuclear Power School before serving in the Navy’s submarine force. “I am a huge proponent of single-gender education because it granted me the focus, drive, and power to be myself and to work hard,” asserted Maya. “I am able to stay true to myself when making decisions, and I practice authentic leadership every single day.”


“Ashley Hall taught me lessons that shaped who I am as a young woman and molded me into who I am today.” —Michaela White ’14

For both women, one of the most vital aspects of Ashley Hall’s tight-knit community was its engaging faculty members, who exhibited passion for their disciplines and a deep commitment to their students. “By the time I reached Upper School, I was comfortable establishing relationships with my teachers, and Mrs. Allison Bowden and Dr. Claire Christensen were my biggest mentors who supported me unconditionally, both in the classroom and in life,” said Maya. “Both of these women showed me how to love my studies and do what makes me happy!” Now majoring in oceanography, Maya traces her choice of major back to growing up on the water in Charleston and the influence of those same teachers. “The math, science, and marine background I gained at Ashley Hall created my passion for all things science, especially in the ocean!” she enthused. “I challenged myself with my course load at Ashley Hall, and I trained myself to put school before other commitments. The challenging, fast-paced setting at Ashley Hall set me up for major success here in Annapolis.”

Michaela was also inspired by her teachers, both in her choice of academic path and in her broader approach to life. “I loved my International Relations class taught by Mr. Andrea Muti, who was the reason I chose political science as a major at the Naval Academy,” she said. “Senora Mahe Van Dyck was always available to talk, no matter what the topic was, whether I needed extra help with Spanish or had a life issue at hand. She was the reason behind my choosing Spanish as a minor. Dr. Roscoe Davis pushed me the most in the classroom and taught me how to stay on my toes with his popsicle stick style quizzes. Coach Gail Bailey really taught me what it meant to be a hard worker, not only on the track but also with everything in life. As my coach, she truly pushed me to be not only a better athlete but also a better leader.”


“Michaela and I have always shared a special bond, and she has been my role model for as long as I can remember. However, our relationship took on a new meaning when I decided to attend the U.S. Naval Academy. Michaela became more than my big sister and my best friend. Suddenly, she was my mentor, my hero, and my guiding light during the two years we shared at the Academy. Once we are both graduates, we will always be bonded by the brotherhood (or in this case, sisterhood) of the Naval Academy.” —Maya White ’17

Their commitment to military service creates a special connection between the sisters, who were also inspired by their father, a 1983 West Point graduate who served as a U.S. Army officer in Military Intelligence. As the first Ashley Hall graduate to attend the Naval Academy, Michaela is honored to be a representative of her Charleston alma mater and the integral values it instilled within her. “I stay true to what I believe in and constantly push myself to stand up and voice my opinions,” she remarked. Maya, too, believes in being a leader who lives out her values. “It has always been a mission of mine to serve others, and joining the military was the perfect way for me to give back to our country,” she declared. “It is an honor and a privilege to be able to serve in the United States military, and I am humbled to share this experience with two of my own family members.”

With initiative, purpose, and vision, Michaela and Maya are fulfilling their mission as the newest generation of Ashley Hall’s principled leaders.

by Katie Neighbours, Ashley Hall Upper School Counselor

“Creating for students a ‘hub’ dedicated to meeting their (mostly non-academic) needs helps demonstrate both to students and our greater community how much we value these needs and the subsequent services provided to meet those needs. Ashley Hall is more than just a school; it is a community comprised of individuals who genuinely care about students and want them to be the most healthy and happiest versions of themselves. We are already doing so much to address the social-emotional needs of students through our ongoing Wellness programs and initiatives, and the creation of the SLC is simply a demonstration of that priority.

The consistent and continual care for students’ mental health and emotional well-being is always a priority, even more so during the pandemic. I’m not necessarily doing anything differently, other than making sure that even our distance learners know that they can continue to access mental health support even though they are not here on campus. I check-in with students via email and conduct counseling sessions via phone or video conference.

I think one of my biggest challenges has been finding ways to keep students, particularly our senior class, motivated and positive. It is normal and understandable for them to focus on the things that they are missing out on or traditions that they have been looking forward to that are now being reimagined or done differently. I want to help them reframe their disappointment and find the silver linings, but it is challenging. I think the mentality of ‘we’re all in this together’ is helpful; I seek to be an empathetic listener while also encouraging them to lean into their roles as student leaders on this campus.

Regarding silver linings and innovations: I believe this pandemic has forced all of us to reexamine our priorities and values. I know that personally, I have changed some of my focus and have rethought about what really matters to me, both personally and professionally. We also have had to become more creative in terms of our campus traditions and ‘how’ we do things. If we keep our focus on the joy that comes from being together in person as a community, we are reminded that we are resilient and can overcome any obstacle.”

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The name looms large in Ashley Hall lore: Miss McBee. She is the founder who, in pursuing her own dream, helped generations of young women to realize dreams of their own. A passionate advocate for girls to receive a quality education and assume their rightful role as leaders, she built her school into an institution that has endured for over a century and has gained a national reputation for excellence. It was her life’s work and her enduring legacy.

She did not do it alone.

One year after Mary Vardrine McBee planted the roots of Ashley Hall, her sister Estelle joined her to support the new endeavor. A year older and a fellow graduate of the Fairmount School for Girls in Tennessee, Emma Estelle McBee had traveled extensively in Europe and worked in community and social services in New York, including a position on the Board at the Jacob Riis Neighborhood Settlement. With a love of the arts, Estelle was an accomplished actress and percussionist, talents that led her to contribute both as a performer and patron to the Dock Street Theatre and the Charleston Symphony Orchestra. At Ashley Hall, she became Vardrine’s assistant and close confidant, wearing many hats and even teaching English, French, the sciences, and first grade before the sisters retired together in 1949.

The School became her life’s work too. Like her sister, Estelle was most passionate about civic engagement and improving the lives of others, especially women. While Vardrine gravitated to educational-based advocacy groups, including becoming the first woman to serve on the Charleston School Board and the president of the Charleston Free Library (which she helped to found), Estelle immersed herself in the work of the first women’s suffrage organizations in South Carolina. In 1914, she was elected vice president of the Charleston Equal Suffrage League, whose mission was “to safeguard and advance the legal, industrial, and educational rights and interests of women to obtain the franchise for women on equal terms with men.” League members held meetings to strategize, wrote letters, distributed literature, made public addresses, and met with local organizations. An important feature of their advocacy was hosting nationally known suffragists, including Alice Paul, Elsie Hill, Inez Milholland, and Abby Scott Baker, some of whom drew crowds so large that the events spilled over into the street.

In 1917, the McBee sisters supported a National Woman’s Party (NWP) Conference on Suffrage, called to elect a statewide committee. Held at the Charleston Hotel, the conference featured Vardrine as one of its keynote speakers; local girls dressed in the suffrage colors of purple, white, and gold served as ushers and sold the weekly Suffragist magazine. With Ashley Hall’s Head of School speaking at the conference, it would not have been surprising if some were Ashley Hall students. Later that same year, Estelle was part of a Charleston Equal Suffrage League group that organized a local branch of the NWP to lend direct support to the national cause. Becoming a member of the League of Women Voters, Estelle remained politically active all her life.

Dedicated to the causes they held most dear, Vardrine and Estelle McBee left their own distinct marks on Charleston. As political activists, civic leaders, and educators, they committed their lives to the empowerment of women. That suffragist spirit has infused Ashley Hall since its early days and is still prominent today.

By Mary B. Webb ’76, Upper School Faculty Member

As an Ashley Hall graduate and current Upper School History Department faculty member, Mary Webb ’76 brings a unique perspective, a wealth of experience, and a keen insight to her classroom. After graduating from Clemson University with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Elementary Education, she earned her Juris Doctor from the University of South Carolina School of Law. After practicing for nearly two decades, she transitioned into education and has taught at Ashley Hall since 2001. Ms. Webb has previously served as Chair of the History Department and is currently an Honor Council Faculty Representative.

Independence of thought and diversity of opinion must be fostered under the same roof, within the same system, as they are crucial to a liberal arts education. It takes courage and resilience to live in today’s society where opinions can differ on even the most fundamental ideas about what our school and wider community should stand for. Ashley Hall promotes the development of brave and independent women who, in a variety of ways, not only live life to the fullest but also enrich and improve the lives of their families while furthering the success of the communities in which they live. The contributions of our alumnae and current students on a variety of fronts are highly individualized, frequently transformational, and sometimes even revolutionary. Ashley Hall women aspire to embody the idea of civic virtue through their ethical service locally, nationally, and internationally. We may not all speak with the same voice, but each individual has learned and earned the ability to express herself clearly, and with conviction.

Ashley Hall’s Mission Statement calls for us to empower educated women who are independent, ethically responsible, and prepared to meet the challenges of society with confidence. The ability to engage in civil conversations enhances the success of every civic engagement. For women who want to foster change, or seek to preserve a status quo in which they believe, it is crucial that they understand how the world works. Gradual acquisition of these skills at developmentally appropriate stages through our Learning Spiral leads to increased knowledge of the world, a deeper understanding of the issues at hand, and, ultimately, the ability to hear, process, and respond with an open mind to opposing points of view.

Experience shows that without civil discourse, time and energy can be wasted in fruitless conversations that can stifle individual voices and hinder growth. Harkness discussions and increased attention on civil discourse provide structure for student conversations across the curriculum. It takes time, practice, and patience for each student’s voice to develop and evolve. We encourage the growth that will continue over their lifetimes. In the classroom, extensive use of primary sources throughout the curriculum encourages students to evaluate the source itself, not just the commentary on that source that reflects the opinion of others. Instruction across all disciplines leads to the same goals, providing students the opportunity to equip themselves with the ability to voice original thoughts, to write clearly and persuasively, to argue both passionately and dispassionately, to discern the truth, and to act accordingly.

Ashley Hall’s goals are in line with that of the Center for Civic Education which seeks to foster crucial skills in order to equitably develop enlightened citizens. Enlightenment happens best with the opportunity for exposure to different points of view. For faculty at Ashley Hall the realization that we as teachers of girls need to be flexible to evolve and adjust our instruction to achieve equity within our own classrooms is particularly poignant. The goal is that our students will absorb the availability and necessity of an even playing field and expect that equality of opportunity throughout the rest of their own lives. If they do not find it, we have faith that they have acquired the necessary skills so that they can help create it themselves.

The search for equity and equality was highlighted this year with Ashley Hall’s celebration of the ratification of the XIX Amendment to the United States Constitution. Students actively engaged in studying the history behind it and participated in a march to celebrate the recognition of this fundamental human right, the right to vote for those who seek to represent you. It is no accident that Ashley Hall’s founder, Mary Vadrine McBee, was one of those who persevered in seeking the right for women to vote using every weapon in her arsenal. She was a risk taker, speaking out in support of the XIX Amendment soon after Ashley Hall was founded. Ms. McBee took steps to make real the ideal of equality at a time when she was relatively new to the Charleston community and a voice of the minority. We advocate for our students to embody that same conviction when pursuing their own causes.

Honor in this pursuit is also key to the concept of civic virtue. Those who serve their community best do so in a forthright, ethical, and transparent manner. Ashley Hall’s Honor Code, a pledge that students sign in a formal ceremony, states that Ashley Hall students shall not, “lie, cheat, or steal nor tolerate those who do.” Students have the opportunity to serve on Honor Council and offer guidance to their peers as they also serve as role models. Students aspire to act honorably in all aspects of their lives, which lays the foundation of trust necessary for open and civil engagement in school life.

Through our Hallmarks, which include the qualities of compassion, intelligence, worldliness, creativity, the ability to collaborate, purposefulness, and the ability to be discerning, Ashley Hall aspires to prepare students to be active, not passive, participants in life’s journey. Practice of civic virtue in our school community seeks to mirror the practice of civic virtue in the wider world. Skills based on ethical conduct must have and will have practical applications beyond our walls. Every student is offered the means to express the courage of her convictions. Ashley Hall’s end goal is always to improve each woman’s quality of life long term. At some point, every Ashley Hall student and graduate will engage, in line with her own convictions, in some controversy or disagreement. She will be ready.

In lab-based Honors Biology II, students undertake their own investigations to gain hands-on scientific experience, and Upper School faculty member Allison Bowden finds creative ways to empower her distance learners to fully engage with the class.

“I have changed my homework assignments to involve more field work at home, including backyard observations, photos, and collecting of plants,” she noted. “All students can share their findings, whether through the projection of my computer screen or with a show-and-tell in the classroom. I have also developed lessons and activities that can be conducted at home or participated in via online attendance.”

Those adaptations have proven invaluable to her distance learners. “Mrs. Bowden includes distance learners in discussions and activities the other girls are doing in person, makes sure we can ask questions while going over notes and homework, and lets us participate in labs and fun experiences,” said Ava Piebenga ’21. “When our class was working with air plants, she sent home two for me to plant as well.”

In particular, Bowden wants her distance learners to experience the lab experiments that are an integral part of Honors Biology II. When students began researching the inner workings of flowers, she saw the perfect opportunity to model scientific collaboration. “While conducting the lab, my on-campus students embraced the opportunity to teach their distance-learning partners,” said Bowden. “They carefully followed procedures as they worked to identify the structures together.”

Using compound light microscopes and dissecting scopes, students also practiced photomicroscopy to capture intricate photographs of flower anatomy. “Being able to call in and work directly with an in-person partner increased my understanding of the lesson content significantly,” affirmed Mallory Mease ’21. “As a virtual student, I was able to take pictures under the microscope which allowed me to look more closely at the parts of the flowers I had only seen on diagrams up until that point.”

According to Bowden, those partnerships are an indispensable component of her students’ educational experience. “I think the on-campus students learned more from the lab by seeing it through their distance partners’ eyes,” she said.

Nurturing relationships is a central element in the Early Education Center (EEC), and this school year, faculty members piloted some creative ways to help distance learning students meaningfully connect with their friends on campus.

“We love our distance learners and want them to feel included in the classroom setting,” said EEC faculty member Amy Kuenzel. “At circle time each day, we rub our hearts and say the names of any classmates not with us to send them good thoughts. We display their photographs and include their answers on any charts in the classroom and on our display board so that their names are written everywhere, just like their classmates’ names. Many of our children can even identify our distance learners’ names. We want each child to be welcomed back as a familiar face when they return to campus.”

Technology helps in maintaining these important connections. “We held a circle time via Zoom with our distance learners and allowed our in-person students to interact with them on the computer,” explained EEC faculty member Batey Self. “The distance learners were able to feel like a part of the classroom, and our in-person students enjoyed sharing activities with them.”

In addition to talking via video chat, students have discovered an old-fashioned way to communicate. “We also send mail to our distance learners!” smiled Self. “We send them notes or drawings from their classmates, materials for activities we are doing in the classroom, and even little surprises and stickers to make them feel special. They also send mail to our classroom, and our in-person students love hearing from their distance learning friends.” Together, they are bridging the distance and proving friendship knows no bounds.

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Ashley Hall is a K-12 independent school for girls, with a co-ed preschool, committed to a talented and diverse student population. We consider for admission students of any race, color, religion, and national or ethnic origin.