Robin Mayne arrived on campus in 1966 to find pastures, grazing deer and unfinished buildings.
She returned Monday to find her alma mater UMBC has grown into a leading research university by its 50th year.
"UMBC has gloriously fulfilled its promise," said Mayne, of Texas, the very first graduate.
The suburban university in Baltimore County celebrated its 50th birthday by throwing a bash with lectures, fireworks, a dance party and puppy parade. Days of events culminated Monday with the State of the University address by President Freeman Hrabowski, who has steered the university for half its 50 years.
"This has been a 50-year experiment in Catonsville," he told the crowd, noting the school welcomed women and African-American students from the start.
It started in 1963, when the General Assembly authorized expansion of the University of Maryland system to include a new campus in Baltimore County.
From the outset, UMBC was founded with a nod toward research.
"Baltimore County is blessed with a number of science-based industries which are currently engaged in highly specialized research and development work and a graduate branch of the University would undoubtedly be of great assistance to these industries," according to the bill.
Spring Grove State Hospital donated 435 acres for the campus and workers broke ground in 1965.
Class opened with 750 students and 45 faculty members in three buildings. That year of 1966, a dance was held in the student cafeteria and the mascot was decided, a Chesapeake Bay Retriever.
Enrollment nearly doubled to 1,400 students the next year and Otis Redding sang at Jazz Day and the student union opened. In 1970, the first class graduated with 241 students.
In 1993, Hrabowski was named UMBC's fifth president. Today, UMBC ranks as the fifth most innovative university in the country, according to the 2017 U.S. News & World Report annual ranking of colleges in America.
Further, the university has seen its research grants jump from about $4 million in the late 1970s to $82.3 million today, Hrabowski said.
Now, students are researching ways to build batteries from glucose found in the body. They're working to track pharmaceuticals through sewage treatment plants. And they're studying the actual results in Latin America of free trade coffee.
Hrabowski's address ended Monday with balloons and cake. The president led everyone in song, "Happy Birthday."