Guest blog post by Charlotte Hamilton
“Have you ever thought about applying to a women’s college?” My high school counselor asked me this during a meeting about my college search, over twenty years ago.
In fact, I had never once thought of applying to a women’s college. Going as far back as elementary school, when I got in trouble for chasing my crush around the classroom, I’d enjoyed the presence of boys in school. So the thought of going to college with only women hadn’t crossed my mind.
My counselor went on to tell me he thought a women’s college would help me develop more confidence. I was quiet in my classes (after I grew out of my boy-chasing phase in first grade), and I suppose he believed going to a women’s college would make me more assertive.
In spite of my initial reluctance, I did entertain the suggestion. My family and I drove from our home in New Jersey to visit two women’s colleges in Massachusetts—Mt. Holyoke and Wellesley. Both had idyllic campuses and excellent academic reputations. I distinctly remember seeing Wellesley College for the first time in the evening, its tree lined paths and gothic stone buildings lit by stately lampposts. The campus was beautiful enough to tip the scales for me in favor of applying. A beautiful campus might not be on the top of everyone’s list when looking at colleges, but Wellesley’s strong reputation and high rankings also swayed me.
To my surprise and delight, I was accepted to Wellesley and decided to attend. Ultimately, this choice shaped my life more than I would have predicted as a senior in high school. I wouldn’t say I quickly developed the confidence that my counselor had hoped I would, but over time I have. This likely had to do with a number of factors. Wellesley’s classes were usually small, its professors easily accessible. Women who excelled in academics, the arts, sports, and other arenas were everywhere, which was both intimidating and inspiring. The friends I made became more than friends—in many ways I consider them role models. I’ve seen how they are in the world, the impact they’ve made in their chosen careers, and it’s helped me strive to be better.
Having never been in a post-secondary academic program that wasn’t dominated by women (my Master’s degree is in social work, which is a heavily female field), I can’t say for sure what differences I might have encountered in a co-ed environment. But I do know there were many things I rarely had to think about at a women’s college. For example, I was never interrupted by a male classmate and never felt as if my opinion was valued less than those of my male counterparts.
Though I was an English major, which would have likely had a mix of men and women at a co-ed school, I had friends who majored in subjects like computer science and physics, which were (and likely still are) male dominated fields. These friends didn’t need to be concerned about being one of only a few women in their classes. They could look around and know they had a right to be there.
As for dating, for those who were interested in meeting men, there were at least five co-ed colleges within a short bus, car, or train ride from Wellesley. Though some women’s colleges are in more remote locations, it is usually the case that there are men nearby. And if you date women? You’re all set on that front.
Wellesley’s motto is “Non Ministrari sed Ministrare,” which means not to be ministered unto, but to minister. This meant little to me while I was in college but has taken on a greater significance post-graduation. What I didn’t realize while I was at Wellesley is that there is a strong network of graduates, connected through the alumnae association, as well as through multiple Facebook groups. There are also groups connecting alumnae of different women’s colleges.
These groups are truly powerful forces. They provide mentorship, assistance with finding work, as well as advice and moral support. During Black Lives Matter protests, alums offered extra support to siblings of color (the term “sibling” is often used rather than “sister,” for the purposes of inclusivity). When one of Wellesley’s most famous graduates, Hillary Clinton, became the Democratic nominee for President, we celebrated her achievement as if it was our own. In addition to the relentlessly positive picture I’ve painted here, alums will also challenge each other to do better when somebody engages in hurtful or insensitive behavior. Interactions like these often help individuals grow.
From what I’ve heard (anecdotally), this experience of connectedness happens at many women’s colleges. Alumnae have a loyalty to the institution that helped shape them and a desire to continue in the tradition of supporting other women. When I meet someone who has attended a women’s college, I feel we know each other in a way that most people don’t understand. We’ve each had this unique experience that can’t be replicated. I often wish I’d appreciated my Wellesley experience more at the time, and I would encourage every female high school student to consider women’s colleges.
Charlotte Hamilton is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who supervises an adult outpatient mental health program in Littleton, Colorado. She obtained her English degree from Wellesley College in 2001 and her Masters in Social Service Administration from the University of Chicago in 2006. In her free time, Charlotte writes fiction and is working on a novel.