Every few years, I read an in-depth article about the current state of women’s colleges in America. Most recently, Vanity Fair published How Sweet Briar Came Back from Financial Ruin and Proved Women’s Colleges Are Still Relevant, which featured the stories of many current students at women’s colleges. Often, there seems to be an element of surprise that, not only are women’s colleges still relevant, but they are thriving and have become increasingly competitive. As a proud graduate of Smith College, none of this is remotely surprising to me. My four years at Smith weren’t perfect, but I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. Nearly seven years after graduation, my experience at Smith continues to impact my life on a daily basis.
To be clear, women’s colleges are not for everyone — we all thrive in different learning environments, whether they’re large state universities, co-ed liberal arts colleges, or religious institutions. After all, there’s a reason that students transfer out of every single higher education institution in America each year. However, I’m thrilled that young women continue to flock to colleges like Smith, Wellesley, and Bryn Mawr. These schools encourage their students to be outspoken, take on leadership roles, and support other women. My academic experience was top-notch, but the experience of simply being at a women’s college enriched many aspects of my life.
Here are some of the ways attending a women’s college impacted my life — both during and after my time on campus.
The environment built up my confidence.
At my small Catholic high school, boys outnumbered girls by a 2:1 ratio in my honors and AP classes. Although I wasn’t boy-crazy by any means, I was definitely a self-conscious teenager with low self-esteem. As a result, I rarely spoke up in class unless I was called upon. Guys out numbered girls in the classroom, so they naturally dominated the discussions.
At Smith, I came out of my shell. I’ll never love public speaking, but I slowly began to voluntarily speak up in class. I was inspired by the intelligent, confident young women around me and I realized I had the potential to be like them if I pushed myself. By the time I graduated, I was far more likely to speak up in debates — both in and out of the classroom.
Some people will argue that women’s colleges aren’t an accurate representation of the real world — and that’s certainly true, because no college or university reflects what the “real world” will be like. College is meant to prepare us for our post-grad lives and careers — and I absolutely left Smith with increased confidence that has benefited me in my professional and personal endeavors.
Seeing women in leadership roles is important.
With the exception of a one-year male interim president, all of Smith’s presidents since 1975 have been women. And, since the student body is all-female, every student organization is headed up by a young woman. I became accustomed to seeing women in leadership roles and, when I graduated, I knew that I didn’t want to work for a company that didn’t have plenty of women in high-ranking positions.
It showed me there’s nothing wrong with taking a “non-traditional” route.
When I told people I’d chosen to attend a women’s college, plenty of them expressed confusion about why I’d voluntarily spend four years “without guys” or joked that they never knew I was a lesbian. These reactions were definitely frustrating — I was so excited and proud to attend Smith and the best response people could come up with was a tacky joke about my sexuality? I learned to not let it bother me because I knew that I’d made the right decision for myself. Plus, my family members and all my real friends were thrilled that I’d found a school that was a great fit for me.
When I visited friends at other colleges, I was reminded that Smith was different and I wasn’t necessarily having a “typical” college experience. But “different” is more than okay and I’ve applied that lesson to my post-grad life. In fact, I’ve made plenty of non-traditional decisions — like quitting my corporate New York City job and moving across the country to write full-time. People may not understand or agree with these choices, but my time at Smith taught me that following my own path is always my best bet.
It’s an incredibly supportive environment.
Smith is full of high-achieving young women, so there was certainly an element of competition that wasn’t always healthy or productive (actually, I’m sure the same can be said of most colleges). But at the end of the day, the overall atmosphere was all about women supporting other women. We formed strong bonds, helped each other study, and collaborated on extracurricular endeavors. Today, I remain extremely close with my Smith friends despite the fact that we’re scattered all over the country and world. They remain some of my biggest cheerleaders and we celebrate every single one of each other’s successes, even if we can’t do so in person.
Our alumni network has been invaluable to me. When I moved to New York City after graduation, I immediately reached out to the Smith Club and they helped me land job interviews during the recession. Last year, I moved to Seattle to pursue a full-time writing career. I immediately reached out to the Pacific Northwest alumni network and its members quickly and enthusiastically connected me with local editors. There’s a lot to be said for viewing women as allies rather than competitors. When recent Smith grads reach out to me for career advice, I’m always thrilled to help in any way I can — I wouldn’t be where I am if it weren’t for our amazing alumni network, so I’m eager to pay it forward.
If I ever have a daughter, I’ll tell her how much I loved attending a women’s college and encourage her to consider it — but I certainly won’t pressure her to follow my path. That would go against everything Smith taught me.