Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Sweet Briar College closing and Why Women's Colleges Matter

Subtitle: How has attending a women's college helped me?

This is so important. Women's colleges matter. Today, as much as throughout history, women's colleges matter.

Sweet Briar College is closing their doors.

Why is this important? Who cares? There are thousands of colleges and universities in America; what does one less mean?

Sweet Briar College is one of the few women's colleges left in the country. Wikipedia  (forgive me for quoting wikipedia, but it was difficult to find a list) states there are approximately 48 women's colleges still functioning as women's only institutions of higher education. Other articles say there were as many as 230 in the last 50 years. Sweet Briar was founded in 1901, and has been challenging, accepting, and encouraging young women ever since. It has made many top ten lists. They are a small liberal arts school in Virginia with only 760 students enrolled in this academic year and every one of them is a woman who will lose a home.

This is important to me because I attended a women's college. I did, and so did hundreds of thousands of other women throughout history. At one time, of course, they were the only way for women to attend college. What's more, for every woman in America and beyond that is looking at colleges, I want women's college to be an option for them all.

I chose to attend Stephens College after a rigorous and thorough search across the country of the best fit for my formative young adult independent years. I never intended to go to a women's college. I had an older brother, and grew up playing with mostly boys. I had as many boy friends as girl friends, and I'd never considered the idea that I'd ever knowingly choose to spend a significant period of time away from my male counterparts.

I'd also never considered the lack of equality in my life, how hard I fought for success in comparison to men, or what it was to appreciate women and being a woman through the eyes of women only.

I worked exceptionally hard through high school, knowing that I wanted to leave my home state for college. I had a great GPA, a long list of extracurricular activities, and enough volunteer hours and awards to make almost any school I wanted look my way. This is true for many women. When I attended my state theatre festival and auditioned for over 50 schools I was surprised at how many showed an interest. But after a long day of meetings, and several weeks of visiting campuses and pouring over websites--there was only one place that felt like home. Stephens. It didn't hurt that their theatre program was ranked #2 in the country at the time.

I remember making excuses for the inevitable questions--Why are you going to a women's college? Why do those even exist anymore? There aren't any boys there? How will you find your husband? And of course--you're studying theatre?

I remember telling people that Stephens was ranked #2 in the country. That the class size was small and intimate. That I would get more one on one time with my professors. That they had accepted all my AP credits and I could skip a lot of required classes. That the campus was beautiful, and I could get to class within five minutes.  I remember saying "Well there are boys in the theatre department, of course." They were considered apprentices and not students.

The worst part is looking back and realizing that I knew I was making excuses. I hadn't yet reconciled myself to attending a college of only female students. But what I didn't realize was that I already knew deep down that Stephens was perfect for me. A women's college was perfect for me.

I had immediately felt wanted, respected, encouraged, and admired when I stepped onto campus. I had also felt the pressure of living up to a new set of standards and ideals. Not the kind you normally get when going to college--wake yourself up for class, try not to gain the freshman fifteen, higher education means all nighters and big lectures--get used to it. Instead I learned, along with the rest of my class, how to communicate with women, how to empower each other, how to look out for each other without depending on men, what it meant to depend on myself, and how to look at the world as if everything was in my grasp.

Because when a woman attends a women's college--that world is her's for those years. Every opportunity presented is only presented to women. Every experience is only experienced by women. And every opinion is validated by women. By sisters. And when she graduates she never learns to let that go. Women who graduate from women's colleges have a statistically high chance of succeeding in their chosen fields. Why? Because no one taught them to fail. A man was never given a position above them, and never took an opportunity from them. They have learned to believe in themself first and foremost. They have been taught that their opinion is important. And they have spent a significant amount of time in positions of power on their campus, giving them more experience than many women who attend co-educational institutions, and equal experience to many men.

Women's college taught me more about myself than I ever knew before--and most of it I didn't realize until after I graduated and was reintroduced to co-educational society. I spoke more confidently, I knew my goals and ideals, I made plans for my own personal happiness in my future. I interacted differently with romantic partners. I was more assertive about my expectations, and could more easily see and feel things that made me uncomfortable. I learned, in a way I had never fully understood before, the different ways that many women allow themselves to be put down. And more importantly, I felt I knew how to communicate compassionately and effectively with them and teach them what I had learned.

Women's college did make me a feminist. A word I had never associated with before. And a word that means and has always meant the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes. I shied away from it for a few years until I realized that doing so was going backwards on everything my education taught me about how to be a strong, independent, brave, bold, thoughtful, passionate, and deserving woman.

And all of this is to say that Sweet Briar College closing is a sad and unfortunate event. It is not just women's colleges that are struggling at this time, in this economy. It is the small private institutions all over. But the reason that this closing is of such tantamount importance is that it takes away one more option from women who might never know how positive an experience attending such a school can be.  These young women who will be unable to finish their degrees at this institution will be looking for a new home. I hope every one of them finds as good a fit as the first one they found. And I encourage them all to look at Stephens College, and any other women's college out there. 

A women's education was the best education I could have given myself. Every excuse I made to people was true, and those were reasons I attended. But I took away even more reasons to encourage other young women to attend. Every woman having to leave Sweet Briar, I'm certain, has a similar story. They are leaving behind their sisters and their family. But they are stronger than many, and are prepared to make bold choices.