Development of the VWIL program began in 1993, at the request of the Commonwealth of Virginia, when the single-sex status of nearby Virginia Military Institute faced legal challenge. To maintain a diversity of options within the higher education system of Virginia, the state proposed that single-sex leadership programs, with opportunity for commissioning into the military, be offered at Mary Baldwin University and at VMI, while a co-educational opportunity be continued at Virginia Tech. Seed funding to design the program was provided by the VMI Foundation.
Mary Baldwin, already known for its success in developing innovative academic programs, created a faculty task force to draw on the latest research as well as their own experience in teaching young women. Dr. Brenda Bryant took the helm as director of the program and welcomed the first class of 42 students on August 22, 1995. Having acted as the first commandant since 1995, Brigadier General Michael Bissell joined the staff as full-time commandant of cadets in 1999.
In March 1996, the VWIL Corps of Cadets presented its first public parade, using recorded music. Since then the corps has grown to its current size of approximately 125 and now includes a marching band unit, a staff, a color guard, four rifle platoons, and an honor guard. It has marched in the inaugural parades of five Virginia governors. In March 2004, VWIL marched in the New York City St. Patrick’s Day parade for the first time and took home second place among all marching units.
The VWIL color guard is in demand for ceremonial occasions throughout the region, and has presented colors at many nationally significant events, including presenting for President George W. Bush and his cabinet at the Ronald Reagan Trade Center in Washington, D.C. The VWIL drill team, Howie Rifles, is named for the elite unit that was established by the Staunton Military Academy and is but one way that the corps carries on the legacy of the cadets that once marched on these parade grounds.
Over the years the Corps has welcomed many distinguished visitors and honored guests such as U.S. Senator George Allen, Virginia Governor James Gilmore, Virginia Congressman Robert Goodlatte, General Binford Peay (former Army Vice Chief of Staff), General John Jumper (former Air Force Chief of Staff), J.R. Sculley (former Assistant Secretary of the Army), and Colonel Nancy Currie (astronaut).