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Programs That Support Students on the Spectrum: What to Look ForBecky Bogoslavsky, MA
The first women’s colleges in the U.S. were established in the mid-19th century, and by the 1960s they numbered more than 200. Some of the most famous include the East Coast liberal arts colleges that make up the Seven Sisters consortium.
Since the sixties, two of these seven, as well as many other Historically Women’s Colleges (HWCs), have gone co-ed — as of 2014, there were only 47 women’s colleges in the U.S. and Canada.
As a student at Wellesley College, one of the Seven Sisters institutions that has yet to admit cisgender men, I’m used to facing outside skepticism about my choice of school. The questions I face range from why I "hate men" to equally misguided and more invasive concerns about who I could possibly be dating on a campus full of women.
Most people I speak with are surprised to learn that my decision to attend Wellesley had little to do with the fact that it’s an HWC. I was drawn to its impressive liberal arts offerings, small classes led by acclaimed professors, cross-registration opportunities at MIT, and the renowned network of alumni. Many HWCs boast similar features. However, most of the other colleges I applied to were attractive for similar reasons and none were HWCs. In fact, ultimately I chose to attend Wellesley for a reason familiar to many students at all kinds of institutions: financial aid.
I'm now halfway through college and in my two years at Wellesley have been impressed by most of the elements that originally drew my attention. I’ve been able to take courses in STEM and visual arts while pursuing my sociology degree. I’ve had professors who have changed the way I view the world and my place in it, and who've been okay with me freaking out about that during their office hours. A network of generous and brilliant alumni has made numerous jobs and internships available to me. On top of this, I’ve been able to participate in a variety of well-funded student clubs and organizations.
I know to many people, these things don't necessarily represent the traditional “college experience.” This difference isn’t only felt in academic spaces; Wellesley’s social life is considered notoriously deficient. Personally, I think this perception is a holdover from decades past; students definitely have fun. However, if my friends and I want to go to a quintessential “college party,” we look off campus to the bounty of other Boston-area universities.
Contrary to popular belief, my most unpleasant experiences at my HWC haven’t been related at all to the bus ride I need to take to go to a frat party. As a prospective student, one of my biggest misconceptions about Wellesley was that it would be a space where marginalized groups were celebrated and supported — this stemmed from my belief that women’s colleges were originally designed to do just that. Unfortunately, even an institution that was created to cater to one marginalized group can still exclude, degrade and fail to meet the needs of others. Wellesley, and other HWCs, were founded to provide educational opportunities for women, but the women the founders had in mind were predominantly white, well off, cis and straight.
Wellesley’s marketing materials represent it as a racially diverse community, but Black students make up only 5% of its population. Black students at Wellesley recently created a list of demands for the administration, which includes the abolition and disarmament of campus police, increasing the number of Black students and tenured faculty, establishing Black student housing, reforming academic requirements to focus on systemic anti-Black racism, and more.
Anti-Blackness isn’t a new phenomenon at Wellesley and other liberal HWCs; the first Black student graduated 12 years after the college was founded in 1875, which was 10 years before the first Black student graduated from any of the other Seven Sisters schools. In 1968 members of the Black student organization Ethos participated in a hunger strike over demands similar to those Black students are still making today.
Adequate resources and support are also not available for other marginalized student groups, including other POC, FGLI (First Generation and Low Income) students, and LGBTQIA+ students.
Although Wellesley’s admissions policies were altered in 2015 to allow transgender women and non-binary people to be considered for admission, the transphobia and cisnormativity of any institution cannot be so easily reformed. Trans* and gender non-conforming students at Wellesley face erasure, ridicule and inadequate access to the resources we need to navigate living and learning in a space where we often feel unwanted and even unsafe. The behavior that contributes to these feelings ranges from the use of gendered language in promotional materials and syllabi, to violent cyberbullying perpetrated by alumni against Trans* students.
Students carry the burden of advocating for their own education and safety. My peers have taken it upon themselves to write guides for Trans* students navigating a campus and institution that were not made for them. This year, a student established the HWCs Black Trans* Student Fund in order to provide community support where institutional support is lacking.
So, to circle back to where this essay started, the reason I love my Historically Women’s College is not the absence of men in my classes (because there are men in my classes), it's the people that are present in my classes and who I am honored to learn from. As a person who has struggled with my gender identity my entire life, and who never would have dreamed of being able to live openly as a non-binary person two years ago, it has been an invaluable community.
I can’t answer whether or not an HWC will be right for you or for your student. But I can encourage you to follow current students and alumni on social media and see what they’re talking about, and to look into a college’s history. My best advice for any student choosing a college is to look beyond the institutional facade and seek to understand the community that it rests upon.
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