If you speak to an admissions officer for let’s say, Wellesley, she might mention their beautiful campus or famous alumnae. If you speak to a student at Barnard, she will likely extol the virtues of a campus in the city and the robust internship opportunities therein. A professor from Agnes Scott College might mention their unique SUMMIT program, in which each student has her own personal Board of Advisors and is empowered to be an agent of global change. An alum from Sweet Briar or Mills College might tell you how they, as part of the student body, prevented their beloved alma mater from changing its core mission. But I’m not here to talk to you about any of those things. I’m going to tell you a secret: Women’s colleges aren’t special.
Well, yes, they have produced a seemingly endless list of successful graduates spanning all fields, and yes, they are a place for deep intellectual focus and fun, but at the end of the day, they are just colleges like any other. Any other with a mission to educate and prepare students for a life of usefulness and fulfillment. Any other with a commitment to access and affordability. They just happen to be for women.
From my experience as an admissions officer for a women’s college, it seemed that reactions to the idea of attending a women’s college fell into one of three camps:
- Okay, but will I ever interact with a male again?
This was essentially the same reactions when I worked at a college in a more rural area: 1) No way do I want to be with cows. 2) Okay, but will I feel isolated? 3) I am so looking forward to seeing all the stars in the night sky. When I worked at an urban school, it was: 1) I will get distracted by everything that is going on around me. 2) Okay, but is it going to be too expensive to do things in the city? 3) I cannot wait to take the subway everywhere! I always encouraged students to come check us out, regardless of where the “us” was located. Because, at the end of the day, you might be surprised at what feels like a good fit. And sometimes a college is just a college.
As a graduate of a women’s college, I can tell you the following: There were relatively few times during my college career that I thought, “Wow, this is an unusual college experience.” The first was during orientation when I realized that I had never met anyone from Asia or Africa before, but also that I had never met a Mormon, a Sikh, or anyone from Oklahoma or Nebraska—or approximately forty other states. I had never met anyone with a royal title nor anyone whose family owned a car wash or a bodega. I also realized that I did not know what hummus was. None of these things are unique experiences at college, (although I imagine now many more people know what hummus is), but these were my experiences in college, and although all my fellow students were female, none of these things had anything to do with gender. This level of discovery is what any great college experience can yield. And I wish I could say I also learned vector calculus, but while my peers at women’s colleges and co-ed colleges did, I did not, and the only person I can blame is myself.
I mean, don’t tell this to Jumpa Lahiri, Madeline Albright, Greta Gerwig, Gwen Ifill, or Drew Gilpin Faust, but in many ways, a women’s college is just a college. So, the next time someone asks if you’ve considered a women’s college, you might want to say, Why wouldn’t I? They are really no different from any other college, after all.