At the end of his nine-hour drive from Ohio, Andrew Mitakides rolls through the brick-columned gates of Virginia's Hampden-Sydney College. Etched in stone on one column is a Latin mission statement: "Huc venite iuvenes ut exeatis viri." Come here as youths so that you may leave as men.

Mitakides passes students in blazers and ties, who wave at him as he drives down College Road past cupola-topped brick buildings and pathways that angle and arc beneath canopies of oak. Birch trees edge a fishing pond. A 180-year-old dormitory looks like it was imported from Colonial Williamsburg.

At first glance, Mitakides is impressed. The high school senior from Dayton -- a scratch golfer and aspiring actor who wants to study theater and political science -- has already visited half a dozen other campuses. Most are small liberal arts colleges within driving distance of his family's home. And all of them are coed, except Hampden-Sydney.

Against all odds, this 1,000-student campus in Hampden-Sydney, 60 miles southwest of Richmond, has remained defiantly masculine -- a place where students are allowed to keep hunting dogs in their dorm rooms and where, the unofficial motto goes, "Men are men, and women are guests." It is, along with Morehouse College in Atlanta and tiny Wabash College in Indiana, one of only three all-male colleges left in the country.

Mitakides heard about Hampden-Sydney from his older sister, Katie, who attended all-female Hollins University in Roanoke, and decided to take a look. Now he and a hundred or so other teens are about to spend a weekend here, sitting in on classes, visiting frat houses, sleeping in the dorm and seeing if a campus as old as America could be a home for four years.

Mitakides arrives wary of what he calls "the all-male thing." At 18, he's always attended coed schools. And, after all, isn't commingling day and night with the opposite sex half the point of college?

As he nurses his doubts, Mitakides walks through the rain toward a coffee-and-danish session at Venable Hall. There, the dean of admissions greets him on the front steps. "Tell me your name," the dean says. "How was your trip?"

This is Mitakides' first encounter with Anita Garland, one of Hampden-Sydney's biggest champions. She may seem an unlikely advocate for female-free learning, but Hampden-

Sydney's success in maintaining its all-male traditions depends heavily on her charm, persuasiveness and persistence.

Wearing her trademark cowboy hat and boots, Garland glides through the crowd and ascends a platform to address the prospective students of the class of 2007. "I hope you have a sense today as you walk around that Hampden-Sydney College is a good match for you," Garland begins, aware that the big questions on their minds are: Who comes to an all-male school, and why?

"We have many things you'd find at other colleges," Garland says -- good professors, a sense of community and such. "But we also have what I believe is a little bit of magic -- that something special that is worth choosing a college for."

On this soggy Saturday in November, Garland has but a few hours to persuade prospects like Mitakides to return as part of the freshman class of 2003 -- and to convince their parents that this private college is worth $28,000 a year.

Garland knows from experience that it's easier to woo the parents. Many would love to see their sons become gentlemen at a campus set amid the soft rolling hills and horse farms of Southside Virginia. The tougher job is courting their sons.

While Garland herds the parents to a nearby lecture hall, the teenagers break into groups and head off on campus tours led by Hampden-Sydney student guides. They walk past the college's bell tower (where a freshman rite is to ring the bell in the nude) and past historic buildings, including the original clapboard structure where Hampden-Sydney's creation was first proposed in 1775.

Mitakides is grouped with a dozen other young men from Baltimore, Bethesda, Charlottesville and Fairfax. Some are wearing blazers and loafers; others are sporting jeans, sneakers and earrings. During one stop, they listen to an effusive lecture from the psychology department chair, Robert Herdegen, who wags his finger and shakes his fist as he champions the school's liberal arts curriculum. "Our goal is not to prepare you for a predefined career," he says. "Our goal is to give you the tools to go out and do what you want to do."

The more effective pitch comes from the droll tour guides, who serve as poster boys for Hampden-Sydney's brand of gentlemanly masculinity.

When asked by one of the teens how he handles the lack of women, Greg Behringer, a senior from Huntsville, Ala., says he's a better student now than in high school because he no longer censors himself in class or shows off for "Suzy Cream Cheese" sitting beside him.

"What do you use class for now?" he asks his prospects. "You do it to meet girls, right? So, are you paying attention to what's happening in class or paying attention to the girl three seats over?"

Wil Israel, a senior from Mobile, Ala., says much the same. The absence of young women during the week helps him focus on his books -- and his friends. "You grow up together here," he says.

And on the weekends, he adds reassuringly, women are always around. "And there are a lot of them, too," he says. "They usually come in packs of five and six."

Since Revolutionary times, Hampden-Sydney has dedicated itself to sculpting "good men and good citizens in an atmosphere of sound learning." Its boys' club approach to learning wasn't always so exotic. Many of the nation's first colleges were founded on the same ideals, including the University of Virginia, whose second leader was a Hampden-Sydney grad.

Fifty years ago, hundreds of four-year colleges, including Yale and Princeton, flourished under the all-male model. But the turmoil of the 1960s -- civil rights struggles, antiwar protests, women's rights battles -- called into question the exclusionary nature of all-male colleges, particularly those that were publicly funded. One by one, they went coed.

The University of Virginia, facing a court order, opened the College of Arts and Sciences to female students in 1970; Washington & Lee began accepting women in 1985; and in 1996 the U.S. Supreme Court forced coeducation upon a recalcitrant Virginia Military Institute.

That Supreme Court decision prompted some Hampden-Sydney faculty members to suggest that it might be time for Hampden-Sydney to go coed, too. They argued that single-sex education was heading toward extinction. What followed was a heated debate on and off campus, with most students and alumni in loud support of remaining all-male. In 1996, the college's board of trustees unanimously voted down the proposal to go coed.

Biology professor Michael Dougherty thinks the trustees made the right decision. He has taught at Hampden-Sydney for four years and has grown to appreciate the value of men-only classes. They result, he says, in a more open exchange of ideas. And the students come to appreciate the uniqueness of their learning environment over the course of their four years.

"By the time they're graduating," Dougherty says, "they'd take up arms before seeing this place go coed."

There's no talk of admitting women anymore. In fact, the Hampden-Sydney model has begun to creep back into favor in elementary and secondary education. Emboldened by studies showing that boys and girls mature at different paces and learn in different ways, educators and members of Congress have begun touting the values of single-sex education.

The National Association for Single Sex Public Education in Poolesville says that three years ago, only four public elementary or secondary schools in the country had single-sex options. Today, that number has grown to 17 all-male or all-female schools, and 29 others offer single-sex classrooms. Those numbers are expected to grow in the wake of President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act, which removed some of the legal barriers to single-sex public education.

It's unclear how all that might affect the college level, where there are 70 all-female campuses, including four in Virginia, in addition to the three all-male schools. Educators doubt that any coed campus would revert to single-sex.

"It'd be very hard for a college to go un-coed," says Garland. "You can't walk the camel back."

But the buzz about single-sex has been a boon for Hampden-Sydney. "The strength of Hampden-Sydney is that it doesn't change," says Jim Arieti, a classics professor, sitting beneath "Oedipus Rex" posters in his book-cluttered office. "We're in the avant-garde now."

For Anita Garland, the renewed interest in single-sex education is an affirmation of "my life's work" -- and a bit of a relief. When she first arrived here in 1980, she marketed Hampden-Sydney's liberal arts curriculum, its small classes, its beautiful campus, its insistence on proper manners and etiquette and its honor code. The all-male thing was deliberately softpedaled. Now, however, she says she feels free to unabashedly tout her school's all-male learning environment and its ability to transform boys into men.

"We're a band of brothers here," she says. "And I think that's why those of us who are single-sex hold on to it dearly."

Garland brings a personal touch to her recruitment efforts. In flowing calligraphy, she writes hundreds of personal letters to prospective students. Her hands are ink-stained through the winter months, and many students say Garland's handwritten missives helped persuade them to come here.

At an evening bonfire the night before a football game, Garland can't walk more than 10 yards without hearing "Dean Garland!" She pauses to chat and dispense hugs to "my boys." Her hearty singsong laugh rings out repeatedly as flames chew into a stack of wooden pallets.

The students around the bonfire are a slice of the American South. Nine out of 10 come from former Confederate states, and the student body is considerably more conservative than you'd find on most college campuses. Garland keeps track of the reasons men choose Hampden-Sydney, and 10 years ago, one in 50 might say they came for the all-male scene. Now, she hears it more and more often.

"I decided to come here the moment I drove through the gates," says John Axsom, a barrel-chested senior wearing a blazer, tie and baseball cap, who carries his own business cards and has "political aspirations."

"I'm comfortable being around men like myself," he adds. That is, Southerners, Republicans -- and hunters. A number of students keep hunting dogs in their rooms and rifles in the school's gun lockers.

Hampden-Sydney's president, Walter M. Bortz III, acknowledges that the college attracts a very specific type of male: independent-minded, self-confident and largely white. Minorities make up about 6 percent of the student body.

"It's not the real world, and I don't pretend that it is," Bortz says. He believes "that most young men would benefit from the all-male experience . . . At the same time, Hampden-Sydney isn't for everyone. All-male isn't the only way." But it's reasonable, he says, to preserve the option.

The women begin arriving after dark. They've departed their all-female schools -- Hollins, or Sweet Briar College outside Lynchburg -- and descended by the score on Hampden-Sydney.

Tonight, the women grab beers from the fridge at the Chi Phi fraternity house, then stand in a bedroom beside a few guys sitting on a couch watching basketball on TV. Radiohead posters hang from the wall, vodka bottles sit atop the desk, and Elizabeth Hurley photographs flash on a computer screen.

The women pass around a bottle of Southern Comfort and sway to the Doors blasting from a nearby stereo. More young women arrive, then more guys, and soon the party migrates to an adjacent meeting house, where a student rock band eases into its first set, led by a singer in a bright red sweat shirt that reads, "Sober."

By midnight, the band is at full speed, cranking out loving-life music, surrounded by a pulsing mass of young men and women, hundreds of them dancing and shotgunning beers, lighting each other's cigarettes and kissing.

"On weekends, we're the most coed school in the United States," declares Chi Phi president Nick Wallace, yelling to be heard above the noise of the band and its cheering fans. "We've got the best of both worlds."

All of which makes quite an impression on Andrew Mitakides. After hours of partying, he falls asleep on a dorm couch and awakes at dawn to find the floor covered with sleeping women.

"Okay," Mitakides tells himself. "This works. I could see myself here."

Just weeks after his visit, Mitakides receives a two-page letter from Garland, who informs him that he's been accepted at Hampden-Sydney College.

"Congratulations. We can't wait to see you next year," she writes in her beautiful script. Enclosed is a "Class of 2007" T-shirt. But he's still not sure. Seven other colleges, including Randolph-Macon and Ohio Wesleyan University, have accepted him, too. Some are closer to home, some are less expensive and all of them have girls right on the premises.

Choosing a college is an agonizing decision. Hampden-Sydney "feels like it could be a home," says Mitakides. And his parents love the place. His mother, Jane, calls it "a college with a very clear idea of its mission -- there's no question about what they're trying to do."

Mitakides makes peace with "the all-male thing." On a campus of men, he tells himself, "I can learn more and be myself and concentrate more." But come March, he's still undecided and returns to Hampden-Sydney for another visit.

He meets briefly with Garland, who tells him to do what feels right for him. But, she adds, she thinks he'd fit in well here. He takes a long walk around campus alone, trying to picture himself strolling from dorm to class to lunch. He can see it. Finally, in late April, after more soul-searching, Mitakides makes his decision and pops his registration packet in the mail.

When the envelope reaches Anita Garland's desk, she shrieks and claps. Andrew Mitakides is going to become one of her boys.

Neal Thompson, a writer living in Asheville, N.C., is the author of a forthcoming biography of astronaut Alan Shepard.