September 27, 2023

Back to the Future

Laura Gilchrist’s sense of style unfolds on Facebook, where the UMW senior sports an Eagles sweatshirt and jeans, a leather jacket and shades, a black and white dress with heels.

But this 21st-century student feels just as tres chic when she pulls on a corset and a pair of starched stockings.

“All of a sudden you walk a little straighter,” said Gilchrist, who’s donned period garb and done historic re-enacting for years. “You’re a whole different person. It transports you to another time.”

UMW Branded photo shoot, June 22 and 23, 1015. (Photo by Norm Shafer). Historic Preservation students work on cleaning the Frank Lloyd Wright designed Pope Leighey house, Saturday April 11, 2015. (Photo by Norm Shafer). Laura posing in period costume. Laura at Sherwood Forest. Laura posing in period costume. Historic Preservation students work on cleaning the Frank Lloyd Wright designed Pope Leighey house, Saturday April 11, 2015. (Photo by Norm Shafer).

She hopes her dream job as a museum curator will, too, pushing her into the past and feeding her passion for sharing it. A hotshot in UMW’s prestigious historic preservation program, she’s as dynamic as the degree she is working to earn.

“Laura is simply outstanding,” said Assistant Dean for Student Involvement Melissa Jones. “She’s taken her Mary Washington experience and capitalized on every bit of it.”

Commuter Student Association president, Class Council vice president, student orientation coordinator, historic preservation student aide and Washington Guide, Gilchrist blazes like wildfire through the campus she loved at first sight. A postcard memento from that middle school visit a decade ago still graces her desk.

Born in Panama, Gilchrist was nudged by her aunt, a Central American Supreme Court justice, toward a career in the law. But when her military family moved to Dahlgren, Virginia – and the historic Fredericksburg area – she found something new … and something old.

They joined the Rappahannock Colonial Heritage Society, where Gilchrist delved into 18th-century drama and dance. As her love of heirlooms and relics took on a life of its own, so did her wardrobe, brimming with petticoats and parasols, bloomers and ball gowns.

Then, in high school, a second jaunt down Double Drive – this one for Discovery Day –showed Gilchrist how her love of the past could help shape her future. She sat in on a historic preservation class, talked in depth with former department chair Gary Stanton and made a decision.

“I love history. I love historic re-enactments. I didn’t know you could do something with that,” said Gilchrist, who set her sights on UMW’s historic preservation program, one of the best of its kind in the country. “This is exactly what I want to do with my life.”

Now, as she nears graduation, she’s working to wrestle her resume onto one page. She’s helped refurbish the Frank Lloyd Wright House, attended Colonial Williamsburg conferences, spent Spring Break at the Craik-Patton House. And that’s just for starters.

“We don’t watch PowerPoints,” Gilchrist said of UMW’s unique and highly hands-on program. “We learn by touching and holding, so you can actually understand.”

Winner of Mary Washington’s Bowley and Annie Fleming scholarships, she’s planned exhibits and led lessons at famous Fredericksburg sites like James Monroe Museum, Kenmore Plantation and Mary Washington House. Online, she blogs about English Regency-era styles.

And on campus? Gilchrist will welcome her brother, Michael, to UMW’s Class of 2020 in August and finish her own degree in December. But she plans to stick around for one more semester to wrap up her responsibilities with Class Council and more.

“Once I’m going, you can’t stop me,” she said. “I put myself into everything I do. I feel that’s the only way to live life.”