In Defense of the Small, Women’s, Liberal Arts College

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Hollins University.  Photo credit to myself.

Hollins University. Photo credit to myself.

Today is International Women’s Day making this attempt to process recent events seem particularly timely.  I hope this says what I want it to say.

***

The world is big. Like, really big. Most of you are not from our little valley, down here in the foothills of the Blue Ridge. Most of you probably have not heard of Sweet Briar College if you’ve heard of Sweet Briar College at all till Wednesday when the college announced that at the end of this summer, they will shut their doors forever.

But sometimes things happen, and you have to process them. I process by writing, and I have a blog, so I may as well share my thoughts. So welcome to my thoughts.

Sweet Briar College was my first choice until a somewhat disastrous overnight visit changed my mind. I ended up at Sweet Briar’s rival college, Hollins University, and I never looked back—or maybe only once or twice.

The girl I was who dreamed of marrying a landed nobleman and running a household while walking about in opulent clothes and changing to go riding through fields and woodlands that I owned, that girl loved Sweet Briar. Wandering the grounds feels like wandering through a Bronte or an Austen novel. The wooden banisters are worn smooth by thousands of hands over decades. There’s one room in the library that could have been lifted from my wildest imaginations of my manor house, all dark wood, plush couches, and pleasurable fiction. The horse barn is the nicest I’ve ever seen—and I’ve seen a fair few. I’d have loved to spend nights going up to the observatory, from which I could view the night sky with so much less light pollution than, well, just about anywhere I’ve ever been.

My opinion of Sweet Briar has been clouded both by that overnight visit and by the traditions and history of my own alma mater, which proclaimed the annual soccer game between our two universities “Burn the Briar Day” and sold student-made t-shirts proclaiming “Friends don’t let friends become Vixens” (the Vixen is the Sweet Briar mascot).

I never had the opportunity to interact with any of the Sweet Briar women or visit the college again after deciding to become a Hollins woman.

***

The announcement of the closing of Sweet Briar rings like death knells across the Internet (or at least within certain circles of the Internet) for a certain types of universities, or at least universities that, like Sweet Briar, share three qualities. Sweet Briar is a small, rural, women’s college. (And a liberal arts college besides, but enough large liberal arts colleges are thriving that I’m going to leave the argument alone for now.) Maybe the three stresses were too much, but each I feel has its benefit, and if the landscape of colleges becomes one where any of these three aspects is absent, we as a country will lack much. In this alternate universe where schools like Sweet Briar, schools like Hollins do not exist, social pressure probably would have found me in a college, but I would not be the woman I am, and I honestly don’t think that the woman I am now would much like the woman I would be.

I wanted a small university. I wanted a relationship with my classmates and professor. Coming from a town of 16,000 and a high school graduating class of 200, I was used to personal attention, and I was unwilling to give that up. I needed a small university. I would not be the woman I am had I not attended a small university. I am quiet by nature. I don’t like to be called on in class because I would rather reflect and observe and process and answer questions later, preferably in writing. Being in a small class and being called on even when I didn’t feel like the most qualified student in the room or the only active participant in a class (the reasons I’d have spoken out in high school) taught me how to express myself. The observation rather than participation mode of learning works for me, and I would have learned the class material in a large university setting, but I would not have fought for my turn to ask questions or to share opinions and I would not have become the more confident woman I am today, more unrepentant than my high school self about having opinions and more willing to share those opinions.

That town of 16,000 is a Connecticut suburb not long removed from its days of farming, with open spaces aplenty but shrinking and old stone walls dividing properties and crisscrossing the woodlands between. By the time I was looking for a college to attend, I’d been to New York City and Boston, and I knew I didn’t want that hustle and bustle or that gray. I am not a city-girl. I specifically avoided schools in large cities, as surely as I avoided schools that are cities, anything with a population to rival my hometown’s. The landscape of Sweet Briar stole my breath and nearly stole my heart—did steal my heart for several months, and I think in my heart, I always believed that Hollins never really did compare for all its green hills and lawns, and its shady garden, and cool creeks, and the woods that kept us bounded on two sides, and the horse pasture that formed the third side. Hollins’ grounds became home, and I felt and feel privileged to walk and run unchecked across them, to explore their crannies and surprises, but Sweet Briar’s grounds are nearer to what Heaven will look like, and I would have spent my four years discovering their secrets and communing with nature among the grasses and woodlands. I’d have been unhappy anywhere without greenery, and Sweet Briar offered me by far the best.

Lastly, women’s colleges. Let me tell you about women’s colleges. I stumbled across women’s colleges accidentally. I didn’t intend to go to a women’s college when I began looking for schools, I just didn’t exclude them, especially as my guidance counselor pinned Hollins as the school for me from the get-go. All of the colleges of which I became aware that happened to have the right climate (I wanted to move south and escape the cold) and environment (small, intimate, with caring professors, and enough greenery to keep me sane) also happened to be women’s colleges.

The small class size was necessary to teach me to speak out, but I think an environment entirely composed of women helped me speak out as well. We were women who shared ideas, ideals, and circumstances, and my classmates were supportive in ways that I think male classmates would not have been able to be, speaking as they would have been from a position of privilege that had been denied to us women since birth. My classmate and I were all of us in some way, however intentionally or unintentionally, coming from a background of repressed voices, and so we listened to one another and encouraged one another to speak out as some of us had never been encouraged to speak out.

In a women’s college, I learned to see the struggles of women, of myself that would have been repressed beneath the usual blanket of social etiquette in a co-ed environment.

It took a little while longer to sprout, but there’s a fighter in me planted there by my experiences at Hollins. My experiences there opened my eyes—or gave me the tools to see the truth when it was in front of me later in the work field, in relationships. That fighter learned to speak out. She learned to see the injustices that needed righting. She learned to be unafraid to get dirty, to not dislike the grease of fried chicken on her fingers, to be unafraid of paint splatter or the “herpes of all craft projects”: glitter. She left behind the prim and proper lady who wanted to be only another ornament in an ancient household and peerage of ornaments, that woman who first fell in love with Sweet Briar’s campus.

There’s one thing more that the Hollins environment did for me, the most important thing. And I hope this is true of Sweet Briar too.

I would not trade the friendships for anything. I have a solid group of friends, any of whom I would take a bullet for, and among whom I know for whom I shouldn’t take a bullet because they’d be too wracked with guilt. Six of us meet weekly to discuss our lives and whatever else comes up, anything from trifling matters like television shows to big things like current events and societal problems.

Those six are the bulwark that keeps me together, at least as important as my family. It makes me so sad that there are those who do not have this support network and when I try to explain to them what my friends mean to me cannot understand. Those six are an absolute and true Godsend. But they are a small, small part of Hollins for me. We are all of us family—the whole of the university—and while we have divisions, our cliques, at the end of the day, we are Hollins women—everyday. Living with these girls was like living among an eternal educational summer camp or slumber party.

Now that I am an alumna, the divisions have ceased to matter near as much. No matter where we are or how many years divide us, Hollins women support one another. I once met a Hollins woman in a tack shop in Connecticut. She offered to let me ride her horses during that first meeting, before we’d even realized that we were Hollins sisters; it was an instantaneous Hollins recognition. I was recognized as a Hollins woman by man who, as a young orphan, had been “adopted” by Hollins women, students who took him out and bought him Christmas presents and generally loved him even if they couldn’t take him home. He stopped me at work to confirm that I was a Hollins woman and then to reminisce about those years, ask after me, and advise me.

We call the alumnae network “the Hollins mafia” because they are everywhere, unexpectedly, and those in the network will move earth to help you once they realize that you’re family.

In the end, Hollins and Sweet Briar share much, both small, women’s, liberal arts colleges, and neither in a large city, though Hollins is in a much more active area. We need small colleges like these to give personal attention to our students, to tease answers out of the more reluctant speakers, and to teach them to speak. We need women’s colleges to continue to inform our women, to show them the world in a new light. As I write this, women are demanding equality, fighting again for our rights. We fight against microaggressions and violence towards women, the unequal social footing, and unconscious and conscious degradation of our sex.  I know the Sweet Briar Vixens and my Hollins sisters will all back me up when I say:

Please, please, let’s not let this one university’s closing spell the closing of universities with their qualities and of their caliber.

***

My heart goes out to the Vixens and residents of Sweet Briar, VA. I know the college and college town more intimately than some as someone who so strongly considered the college. I know how tiny, how rural is Sweet Briar, VA. My heart goes out to those who work in the town of Sweet Briar, the population of which is almost entirely college students and staff. Without the college, I don’t know what will happen to that strip mall. I don’t know what will happen to that town.

I know that if it were my college, if Sweet Briar had been my college, I would be heartbroken to know that soon there would be no home for me to return to.

Vixens, we’ve been rivals for a long time, and I’m sure you’ve enjoyed that rivalry as much as I did. In this trying time, I hope we can learn to be friends. I hope we can focus on our commonalities and not on our differences. I know that no home will ever replace your home, and that your home is what they’re taking away from you, I hope you can find a little solace elsewhere, at Hollins if Hollins is where you choose to find rest. I know it may be too hard to come to us.

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About Kathryn

My love of books has been carefully cultivated by the adults who raised me and also by the friends who love to share. My life has led me down long library shelves, to online forums, fanfiction sites, the front of a lecture hall, and into the desks of college classrooms. With an English degree and a couple master’s classes in Children’s Literature, I am now a bookseller for Barnes & Noble. I have been an editor for Wizarding Life Networks (the people who brought you Wizarding Life, Panem October, and MyHogwarts now HogwartsIsHere).

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