Women’s colleges

Inspired by the visit of Sonya Stephens of Mount Holyoke, I began thinking about women’s colleges.

An all-women’s college changed my life
Shoba Narayan

November 29, 2014 Updated: November 29, 2014 05:48 PM

Those involved in higher education – and I say this as the daughter of a college professor – sometimes forget just what an impact they can make on a young student’s life.

Think about it. If you are over 40, you probably don’t remember who you met last week. But you do remember those teachers whose classes you enjoyed and the teachers who shaped your mind, who charted a course that was different from the one that you had planned for yourself. These inspirational faculty, staff and advisers have been given the gift of interacting with young people when they are pretty much a tabula rasa.

Professors sometimes forget about this in their rush to publish papers and write grant applications. Reminding themselves that their jobs allow them to do what many adults aspire to do – influence young minds and leave a legacy– should help teachers get through the drudgery of institutional work: the grading of papers and writing of reports.

I went to Mount Holyoke College, a small liberal arts women’s college in South Hadley, Massachusetts. My college days were a happy mix of curious coincidences that I could not have foreseen or engineered.

A random student, Millie Cruz, who stayed in my dorm, told me about a charismatic sculpture professor. I had never taken an art class before and indeed, the beginners’ sculpture class didn’t fit into my course schedule. But when I phoned Professor Leonard DeLonga, he told me to take whatever class that my schedule allowed. That was how I, who had no clue about art, became an advanced sculpture student at Mount Holyoke.

Good professors nudge students into paths that they may not have foreseen. Good colleges allow their faculty to make such decisions spontaneously. Good colleges go out on a limb for the student, not just with words, but also through actions.

After a year of art classes, I realised that it was my passion. I wanted to switch to becoming an art major, but I was running out of time. I had only a semester left before I finished my courses. The only choice that I – an international student on a student visa – had was to apply to graduate school. There was one problem: I didn’t have enough credits.

This was the second time that Mount Holyoke went out on a limb for me. My professors wrote to the college president and asked for an extension, so that I could stay one more year and make up an art portfolio. College president Elizabeth Kennan agreed with their analysis and gave me a full-tuition scholarship for one more year so that I could make up enough art credits to apply for graduate art school.

I did go on to graduate art school on a scholarship. A life’s path was forged at a world-class undergraduate institution.

Women’s colleges in the United States are coming under increasing pressure to convert to coeducational institutions. They were always a minority. Mount Holyoke was part of the “seven sisters”, a loose consortium of liberal arts colleges that traditionally admitted only women. The others were Smith, Wellesley, Bryn Mawr, Vassar, Radcliffe and Barnard. Of the group, Radcliffe has merged with Harvard and Vassar has became coeducational.

Every now and then, the remaining “sisters” open up a discussion about the future of women’s education. It happened even when I was in college. Typically, the students could go either way, but the admissions office would prefer that the college become coeducational, so they can recruit more students. The alumni, however, are the most vocal voice in favour of women’s education.

This, then, is the paradox. I only realised the value of studying at an all-women’s college after I graduated. If you have a young girl in your family who is looking at a college education, particularly in the US, I would urge you to help her consider going to a women’s college as an alternative. It could change her life.

Shoba Narayan is the author of Return to India: a memoir

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