My journey to a women’s college

angela davisPretty sure my early influences led me to attend a women’s college. My mother attended Hunter College in New York which now has gone coed. My fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Caplan, a Radcliffe alumnae, constantly encouraged me to strive to attend one of the Seven Sister schools–Barnard College, Bryn Mawr College, Mount Holyoke College, Radcliffe College*, Smith College, Vassar College*, and Wellesley College. I think even one of my great aunts was in on this brainwashing, too.

It was nice to dream big and have goal to work toward. But when I moved down south, that dream seemed so much more unaffordable and distant. My peers talked about UNC-Chapel Hill as the gold standard or NC State University. In my mind Duke University was as close to Ivy League as one could get down here. I was still naive enough not to realize just how many other things beyond brain power go into getting in and thriving at an Ivy League school. Had I shared my desire to attend one of the  Seven Sister schools with my high school guidance counselors, perhaps they could have helped me prepare the right path or at least given me a more realistic picture. But I kept that dream close to the vest in my internal world that I didn’t allow strangers or often even friends into.

Since my parents were working at an historically black college, I began to be more aware and interested in attending an HBCU but I still wanted to attend a women’s college. I was enamored with the traditions I’d read about that women today would just balk at. I liked the idea of curfews, teas and wearing hats, gloves and dresses. In my head I was picturing the 1950s–an era I was fascinated with at the time. So I only had two options in the HBCU world that were women’s colleges: Bennett College in Greensboro, NC, and Spelman College in Atlanta, GA. I’d heard great things about both and knew prominent women in my community who had attended them.

I think I would have been happy at either, but in the end I took the practical route. With two older brothers in college and me on the way, I knew Bank of Mama and Daddy was stretched pretty thin. Greensboro was closer to home so travel expenses would be less than to and from Atlanta. Bennett also cost less per semester at the time and they offered me a full scholarship for the Kenan Science Program. So I became a proud Bennett Belle and future Optometrist. (Oh yeah, I took a major U-turn off that path, but that’s for another post.)

The era of mandatory hats and gloves when going downtown was over. As was chaperoned dating. (Yay!) But freshman still had an 11 p.m. curfew on weekdays and Midnight curfew on weekends. We were required to wear skirts or dresses on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. These rules relaxed over the years I attended, well, some we just bent mercilessly so much that they became unenforceable. There were some traditions that remain to this day–a sea of white dresses at the White Breakfast and at Convocation. The annual living Madonnas and concert is still held during Christmas. ACES, the Academic Cultural Enrichment Series, events still goes on. These events allowed me to hear and meet people like Shirley Chisolm, Angela Davis, and Jesse Jackson.

As I approach my ___ class reunion, I look back on the fun and the hardships gratefully. I entered Bennett with an idealized 1950s version of what a women’s college would be like, but left with something I could not have expected–a stronger voice and sense of self. I learned how to not always live in my interior world, but to share my thoughts and speak up strongly when I had opinions, questions or answers. I learned how to be independent and unapologetically think independently. Bennett, my little college of approximately 600 women, was a 4-year gift.

*Radcliffe merged with Harvard University and Vassar is now coed.

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