For a long time, Philadelphia High School for Girls has been inspiring young women to dream big — and they have, going on to become mayors, college presidents, actresses, doctors, and judges.

On Friday, that message was reinforced in a big way when the president of Harvard — the first female to lead the nation's premier Ivy League university in 371 years — kicked off Women's History Month with an address to students at the magnet school, where almost all are college-bound.

Faust held up her groundbreaking achievement at Harvard — where at one time women weren't even permitted to enter the undergraduate library and few served on the faculty.

"What I want that to say to you is you can do anything," said Drew Gilpin Faust, 70, a historian who spent decades in the Philadelphia area, having gotten her academic degrees from Bryn Mawr College and the University of Pennsylvania and having served on Penn's faculty for 25 years.

"Your ideas matter. Your work is important and you have something unique to give to the world."

Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust tells Girls’ High students to draw from her experience that “you can do anything.” JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer .
Jessica Griffin
Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust tells Girls’ High students to draw from her experience that “you can do anything.” JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer .

The audience, including some young women who applied to Harvard and will learn on March 28 whether they are accepted, were especially touched by Faust's account of growing up with brothers who got opportunities she was denied — which fed her determination. How she was the first female professor in her department at Penn, then its first female chair, and how when she got pregnant in 1981 there was no such thing as maternity leave, so she had to videotape six weeks of lectures in advance.

How her own mother told her: "It's a man's world, sweetie, and the sooner you figure that out, the better off you'll be."

"For her to start out in that era and finally get to this point is very inspiring," said Jayla Garner, 17, a senior who applied to Harvard.

It left Garner wanting to go to Harvard even more.

The visit was initiated by Harvard. Faust, who specializes in the Civil War and American South and has long been passionate about women's rights and racial equality, has visited more than a dozen high schools internationally in her nearly 11 years at Harvard's helm. Most of them have been girls' schools, Faust herself a graduate of an all-girls high school and college.

Girls’ High senior Fatima Peters interviews Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust after her speech. Faust tells the student, if given the choice, she’d rather be respected than liked. JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer .
Jessica Griffin
Girls’ High senior Fatima Peters interviews Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust after her speech. Faust tells the student, if given the choice, she’d rather be respected than liked. JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer .

Girls' High in the city's Olney section marks her first address at a public high school for girls in the United States. She had never been there when she lived in the city, but said she had always wanted to, noting that former Penn president Judith Rodin, once her boss, is an alumna, that her children played on sports teams with Girls' High students, and that she had known a teacher there.

So Harvard set it up, knowing that Faust would be in  town to meet with alumni and attend the Ivy League basketball tournament at Penn over the weekend.

As Faust entered the 980-student school, Amanda Smith, 16, a junior, shook her head in amazement.

"It's like Obama just walked in," she said.

Smith doesn't want to go to Harvard; her sights are set on a historically black college, like Howard or Spelman. But the moment was important to her.

Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust greets Girls’ High students after her inspiring speech. JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer .
Jessica Griffin
Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust greets Girls’ High students after her inspiring speech. JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer .

"It just means we're good enough," Smith said. "I think sometimes inner-city schools aren't recognized by high-esteem universities. It feels good to know that somebody of her stature wants to come and speak to us."

The visit comes as Faust prepares to step down as president this June. She said she plans to take a year sabbatical and remain in the Cambridge area, then decide whether to retire or return to the faculty. Faust rose to the presidency in 2007 after the departure of Lawrence H. Summers, who drew ire for his controversial suggestion that the under-representation of female scientists might be due to a lack of intrinsic aptitude for math and science.

At first, Faust de-emphasized her historic role, noting: "I'm not the woman president of Harvard, I'm the president of Harvard." But over time, she told students, she embraced its importance because of the many letters she received from young girls and women saying how much it meant to them.

Her tenure was marked by strong fund-raising, a more diverse student body and faculty, and an effort to get the university to face some parts of its past.

Faust has been aggressive about trying to phase out a long tradition of single-sex clubs and groups, including fraternities, in part because of concerns about alcohol abuse and sexual assault there but also because of their exclusivity.

She also urged the university to explore its ties to slavery; the school dropped the "house master" title for residence hall leaders, installed a plaque on a building for slaves who lived and worked there during the tenure of two Harvard presidents, and last year held a conference on the topic of universities and slavery.

Though the recession hit early in her tenure, Faust kept her commitment to increase financial aid and make Harvard more accessible to students from lower-income families. Harvard touts that one in five students come from a family with an annual income of less than $65,000.

Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust tells Girls’ High students “your ideas matter.” JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer .
Jessica Griffin
Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust tells Girls’ High students “your ideas matter.” JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer .

She is credited with fostering more collaboration between the college and the university's graduate and professional schools, dubbed "One Harvard." Under her leadership, the university raised more than $8 billion in its current capital campaign.

The daughter of a thoroughbred horse breeder, she grew up in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, got her bachelor's at Bryn Mawr in 1968, and then both her master's and doctorate degrees from Penn. She served on Penn's faculty until 2001, when she was named the first dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, which was created after Radcliffe College for women was merged with Harvard.

"I know about things like Wawa," she told students, reflecting on her decades in the region, "and I'm still somewhat of a Phillies fan."

Higher education, Faust told students, will bring higher-paying jobs and healthier and happier lives, but also a chance to explore  and see themselves in a larger context. Her experience at Bryn Mawr, she said, taught her women could overcome obstacles and lead.

But as far as women have come, the evolution of the "Me Too" movement, in which women are calling out their sexual harassers and abusers, has shown "we've got a long, long way to go."

Girls' High principal Parthenia Moore embraced Faust, confessed she was "awestruck," and said she hopes Faust comes back  every year. The feeling was mutual.

"What a pleasure it was to be with them," Faust said.