On March 3, 2015, Sweet Briar College - a women's liberal arts college in Sweet Briar, Virginia - announced that it would be closing at the end of the summer, due to financial difficulties. Among the outraged alumnae who set out to "Save Sweet Briar" was popular blogger, Fashion Fois Gras, who wrote this post about her experience in attending Sweet Briar as an undergraduate.
Which was not unlike mine.
You see, like Emily, I'd never intended to select an all-women's college based in rural, Western Massachusetts (a campus, might I add, which has been ranked as one of Princeton Review's "Most Beautiful College Campuses" for more years than I can remember).
Later, when I worked in the Admissions office as a tour guide and Admissions Fellow at Mount Holyoke, I was asked by students and parents alike: "How did you choose Mount Holyoke?"And I'd smile, because I hadn't chosen Mount Holyoke - it had chosen me.
First, what you've got to understand is that the whole college admissions process is completely different in the US, compared to the UK. It's extremely competitive, extremely expensive, and the selection, as the alumni interviewer who conducted my interview for Harvard put it, can be "total crapshoot". If you don't have perfect grades, at least five extra curricular activities, volunteer on a weekly basis, and aren't involved in a leadership role (preferably student government), then you can count yourself out of the running to most competitive colleges and universities.
In addition to this, a much bigger emphasis is placed on where you went to college in the US, versus the UK. It can rule you out of certain jobs and it's an association that you have for life. In short, it's kind of a big deal. Even now, as a 30-something adult, I'm asked when I go back to the States, "Oh, where did you go to college?"
Needless to say, I didn't get into Harvard. But when it came time to apply to colleges (you're encouraged to apply to 5 - college applications cost between $85-95 a pop in my time, so if you were particularly privileged, you could apply to more), I picked with very little knowledge of what I really wanted out of my college experience. I had no idea. I came from a tiny little town in the Puget Sound. I'd never heard of the Seven Sisters, let alone the small, private liberal arts colleges on the East Coast like Williams or Vassar or Amherst (which also would have been perfect for me).
I didn't know.
So, I did what my peers did: I applied to the University of Washington (undergraduate enrollment of c. 30,000 students), University of Southern California (c. 20,000 students), Harvard, and Stanford (or Yale, I can't remember, but I didn't get in). I'd just received my acceptances to UW and USC when I dug out a college brochure to read along with my breakfast one morning before school. I'd originally tossed the flyer (as a high school junior, you were sent tons) because it was from an all-women's college, which had zero appeal to me. Boring. Insular. One-sided. Snobby. Unnecessary. These were all the thoughts that ran through my head when I first saw it.
But today was different. I stopped chewing. I read about the small class sizes (enrollment is c. 2,000 versus 30,000 at UW), the interdiscplinary majors, the equal strengths in sciences and the arts; I read about the Ivy League professors, the clubs, the study abroad programs, and the beautiful campus. I read about its music department. After feeling adrift and anonymous during campus visits to UW (where I sat in lecture halls that seated hundreds and hundreds of students who all looked the same), I felt like Mount Holyoke "got" me. It understood my uniqueness and catered to that.
I applied. And shortly after, I was invited to visit the Mount Holyoke campus - all the way on the other side of the country. A six-hour plane ride. I returned with a Mount Holyoke sweatshirt and my eyes shining with ... something. I didn't know what it was, but I knew that it was where I belonged.
When the acceptance came, I screamed. And when I saw my merit scholarship amount, I wept. I was going to Mount Holyoke. Up until then, my dreams had always been vague and fuzzy. But now I knew: my dream was to go to Mount Holyoke (cue Dirty Dancing references here!). And it came true (thanks to my parents!).
Recently, an article by Diane Halpern appeared in the New York Times, adding to the discussion topic: "Are Same-Sex Colleges Still Relevant?" Aside from the many points in her article that infuriated me, Halpern wrote, "By many measures, today's women are flourishing in higher education and do not need a protected environment to develop their intellectual potential." Condescending tone aside, Mount Holyoke was not a "protected environment" for me and my peers to "develop our intellectual potential". The school that Halpern writes of may be the Mount Holyoke of 1837, but today, it is so much more than that. It is a place where we were constantly and repeatedly pushed outside our comfort zones - socially and academically - where we, if anything, were reminded of our privilege and of our place in this world, where we reclaimed (yes, I used that word) our voices, in a world where we are almost always talked over. That's not protection, it's called practice. Practice for life outside those gates.
Fashion Fois Gras said that attending a women's college taught her about bravery. And I would agree.
Sometimes, I sit in meetings at work where I'm the youngest, most junior, female member in the room. As I did in undergraduate seminars, I like to sit back and listen. But when I have something to say, I might be nervous about saying it, sure, but I'll say it, and I'll make my point clear. If I don't feel as though I'm being heard, I'll say it again.
That's what Mount Holyoke taught me. Speak until you are heard. Use your intelligence. Be skeptical. Be inquisitive. Work hard. You can do better.
Those lessons aren't protective; they're necessary.
Yesterday, I met a young alum for lunch. She was also from the Puget Sound, had graduated in 2013 and moved to London after studying abroad in Bologna, Italy during her junior year. Her emails to me were polite, inquisitive, and charming. We chatted and shared our respective Mount Holyoke experiences, and though we had just met, I could tell that she was bright, adventurous, multi-talented - typical of Mount Holyoke.
This week, I received an extraordinary box of gifts from a friend (and fellow Mount Holyoke alum), Anna. "You've been ELFED!" the card on the blue and white box read, and reminders of MHC tumbled out: a t-shirt, magnet, lanyard, and sticker ... all emblazoned with the logo I'm proud to wear (and people in London probably think is some random made-up university from Primark!). Elfing is a tradition for first-years at Mount Holyoke - their "elves" (sophomores) drop small presents outside their door in the mornings (some not-so-nice elves prank their elfees by saran-wrapping their doors, but we won't go there) and at the end of the week, you meet your "elf". It's an induction of sorts, but more of a get-to-know-you tradition.
Anna wasn't my elf, but she still insists on elfing me every year. Even if that means making cards and sending things to me in London all the way from Boston - when she's 8 months pregnant!
"Ugh, you Mount Holyoke people are soooooo weird!" John said, when I showed him my beautiful gift. "What is with you guys? Why do you keep doing this kind of stuff?"
I laughed. "You just don't get it," I said.
"No, I don't!" he replied, while simultaneously admiring my new t-shirt."Looks good on you, though."
And that's fine. Some people just don't get it. But for those who do, it's an amazing, wonderful thing.
p.s. And if you're still not tired of reading, and want to know more about my experience at Mount Holyoke College, read my Baccalaureate speech from our Commencement weekend here.