September 23, 2016

Don’t dismiss a single-sex college

Kimberly Dixit

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This article was originally published in the Hindustan Times Education Supplement.

As more and more students become interested in liberal arts colleges abroad, many discover that some of the best options in the United States are single-sex colleges for women only. Often the mere suggestion of such a learning environment evokes a strong “no” response from parents and students alike. “The real world is coed,” some parents assert. Or, “it doesn’t seem normal to study without boys around,” female applicants argue.

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Oftentimes, however, these reactions are rooted in an outdated understanding of single-sex education, which implies that women will not be challenged enough for the real world at a women’s college. Within this reasoning the fallacies are obvious: 1) Women cannot challenge each other. 2) Women need to be protected from learning environments that are infused with male aggression. 3) Women-only education is not as good as coed education.

If these are the fallacies, below are some facts I learned at a recent event hosted by the Mount Holyoke College Shakti Programheld in Mumbai in August 2016 for girls in grades 10–12. Mount Holyoke was the first of the Seven Sister institutions, which were set up as counterparts to then all-male Ivy League colleges. Besides Mount Holyoke, the Seven Sisters include: Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Radcliffe, Smith, Vassar, and Wellesley colleges. Of these, all but two are still women’s colleges—Vassar is now coeducational and Radcliffe is a part of Harvard.

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Fact 1

Women’s colleges offer environments where women can become stronger, not weaker. As Acting President Sonya Stephens explained, the Shakti Program offered young women a space to build confidence in their aspirations. Over two days the girls were able to explore the concept of women’s leadership, interact with women leaders as role models, and engage in exercises and activities that helped them conceive and articulate their own understanding of and goals for leadership.

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In one exercise, the girls broke up into pairs and worked with mentors to develop personal pitches that they could use to represent themselves in any situation. Each pitch ended with a request for either further contact, an introduction, an interview, or something else of value to help the student develop a relationship or network.

This is clearly an example of women pushing the boundaries of other women in ways that help them develop and grow.

Fact 2

Women’s colleges prepare students for all types of challenges in life. Like coed colleges, women’s colleges are not created equal. Each has a unique mission and history that guides administrative and academic initiatives. Some take a very academic approach to the liberal arts. Mount Holyoke believes in putting liberal arts learning into action through its curriculum-to-career experiences.

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Focus areas and priorities of every college ensure that different women’s colleges as well as coed liberal arts colleges vary in the intensity and direction of their learning environment. You cannot assume that women’s colleges are less competitive.

Fact 3

Women’s colleges offer environments where students can develop the skills to contribute and lead change in any area, not just those that impact other women. All of the Mount Holyoke College administration with whom I spoke emphasized the strengths of the College and its programs in terms of how they develop women into leaders of any cause and in any geography. As an institution committed to a global outlook—the first international student came to campus in 1839—Mount Holyoke boasts of its alumnae’s achievements across a wide range of industries, initiatives, and areas. The line-up of alumnae speakers included activists, journalists, artists, and politicians who have transcended a female or an Indian tag.

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Ultimately, any woman who chooses to attend a single-sex institution over a coed institution is making an unconventional choice from the outset. Maybe this choice is not made because the college is single-sex. Maybe the college is the right fit for the student in spite of it being for women only. But once you have over 2,000 students together who have the attitude and spirit to make the choice, for their own reasons, the institution becomes a very special place where meaningful things happen.

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So if you’re looking for a top-notch liberal arts college experience, the next time a single-sex college comes across your radar, don’t dismiss it out of hand. Evaluate at it as you would any other liberal arts college and you may be surprised by what rises to the top of your list.

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President and cofounder of The Red Pen, Kimberly Dixit is an independent education consultant for undergraduate and MBA applicants. Through her Hindustan Times column, she offers study-abroad advice to readers across India. Dixit has taught at Duke and Stanford universities, at St. Xavier’s College, and at the US Consulate General’s American Center in Mumbai. She holds a PhD in anthropology from Duke University and a BA in anthropology from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Originally from California’s Central Valley, Dixit has also lived in San Francisco and New York. She calls Mumbai home.
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