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Three times perfect

They grew up dressing alike, but at Dartmouth these triplets forged their own successful paths; now they've made history

Ashley (right), Brittany, and Courtney Henry yesterday became the first triplets to graduate from Dartmouth College in the school's 238-year history. (geoff forester for the boston globe)

HANOVER, N.H. -- The identical triplets say they often sit in the order in which they were born, which is also, coincidentally, the order of their heights. Ashley Henry is the tallest at 5 feet 4 inches, while Brittany Henry is 5 feet 3 1/2 , and Courtney Henry is 5 feet 3.

Since they were born Oct. 22, 1985, the sisters have been nearly inseparable. They participated in the same extracurricular activities growing up, including gymnastics, basketball, and the debate team. They were co-valedictorians of their high school in San Diego .

And yesterday, the Henry sisters became the first triplets to graduate from Dartmouth College in the school's 238-year history.

"Oftentimes we find ourselves finishing each other's sentences and having the same thought processes," Ashley said at Dartmouth last week in an interview during which the sisters all crossed their legs, sat in alphabetical order, and wore sharp two-piece business suits. "But that's because we've been together our whole life."

But at Dartmouth, the sisters forged diverse academic and social paths. Ashley, who joined Kappa Delta Epsilon sorority, majored in history. Brittany, who helped start a Dartmouth chapter of Alpha Phi, an international sorority, majored in religion. Courtney, who mentored local children and organized campus community service activities, majored in American history.

"It's kind of extraordinary that they all wanted to go to the same place and were successful," said Marty Redman, the school's dean of residential life.

Now that school is over, the triplets plan to return to San Diego for a year. They say they want to be close to their mother -- not each other -- and take time to decide where to go for graduate school. Ashley plans to attend medical school, Brittany law school, and Courtney dental school.

They say they want to establish a scholarship to support twins and triplets in college. The sisters received full scholarships to attend Dartmouth.

Early yesterday morning, the women prepared for commencement just as they had prepared for freshman orientation four years ago -- with one sister missing. Ashley had a meeting, so Brittany and Courtney combed each other's hair, applied each other's lipstick, and adjusted each other's graduation gown in the two-bedroom dormitory room Ashley and Courtney shared this past school year. During freshman orientation, Brittany was the missing link.

"She was somewhere socializing," Courtney said.

While the sisters are identical triplets, their personalities tell them apart. Ashley tends to represent the group and has always been concerned with looking after her siblings, according to their mother, Olivia Willis-Henry, a language pathologist and audiologist. Brittany is the "free spirit," in the words of Willis-Henry, and the only one with blond highlights and pierced ears. Courtney has been the quietest, but overcame much of her shyness at Dartmouth.

Like many identical siblings, they often share each other's feelings and sensations.

Once, when they were 13, Brittany was hit across the face with a metal baseball bat while playing catcher with friends. Almost simultaneously, Ashley and Courtney, who were spending time with a relative, sensed that something was wrong. Their faces began to tingle, they said . "It felt like needles going through my right eye," Courtney said.

Growing up, the triplets dressed alike.

"It was very easy for me, as a parent, to pick out one outfit a day as opposed to three," said Willis-Henry, a single mom. "Plus they looked cute."

Each wore a pin for the first letter of their name -- A, B or C -- until the seventh grade. The triplets could have had separate bedrooms before they entered high school, Willis-Henry said, but they chose to rotate between a bunk bed and a single bed, and used extra rooms to study and play.

At Dartmouth, they occasionally wore the same outfit in different colors to special events. They also shared a dormitory room their first year, an unusual arrangement at Dartmouth, where housing officials say they typically try to separate people with similar personal experiences. Redman said that the Henry sisters were a confident trio, and housing officials did not worry about their ability to socialize with others.

"People ask us if we have the same interests and if we fight over boys," Brittany said. "Of course we don't fight over boys."

Since their freshman year, Courtney has lived in an African-American cultural house and Ashley in a house with mostly international students. Ashley and Courtney studied in Barcelona their junior year, and lived with different host families, while Brittany studied in Edinburgh. For their birthdays, Brittany flew to Spain to celebrate with her siblings.

"We were known as the twins in Barcelona," Ashley said. "They really flipped when Brittany came to visit."

Yesterday, under gray skies and in cool 65-degree weather, Brittany and Courtney walked to the gym together to line up with the other 1,018 graduating seniors for the procession and to meet up with Ashley.

Once they were together, they continued to adjust each other's hair and mortar boards. With bagpipes playing in the background, they walked outside through wet grass and posed for pictures with friends along the way. Amid a tent of green umbrellas, they processed through the crowd standing on the Dartmouth green, which is lined with tall elm, oak, and maple trees.

When it was time to confer the Bachelor of Arts degrees, Willis-Henry, seated next to the college president's wife, looked on with pride as the sisters were named -- first Ashley, then Brittany, then Courtney.

The audience applauded as Dartmouth's first triplets posed for pictures and waved to the crowd.

April Simpson can be reached at asimpson@globe.com.

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