Women's colleges cultivate leadership
By Nicole Burdakin
Ruth A. Knox, a 1975 graduate and now president of Wesleyan College, knows firsthand the value of a women’s college education.
At a women’s college, Knox said, young women have “countless opportunities to develop as leaders and thinkers, to explore and accept challenges, to experience success and failure, and – even when not hitting the mark – to keep trying.”
Though greatly outnumbered by coeducational institutions in the U.S., women’s colleges produce a higher percentage of female graduates who go on to become political and business leaders.
“I chose to attend a women's college because of the leadership opportunities that it would provide. I knew it would be empowering to be surrounded by so many successful female students and leaders,” said Sarah Williams, a senior studying Elementary Education at Columbia College.
Williams found many opportunities to lead and to plan events at Columbia, including service projects both on campus and in the community alongside peer student groups and community groups. “My experience at a women's college showed me that I truly am a leader.”
Of the 119 schools, colleges, and universities related to The United Methodist Church in the United States, there are three women’s colleges: Wesleyan College in Macon, Ga., Columbia College in Columbia, S.C., and Bennett College in Greensboro, N.C.
Natalie McLean, college chaplain at Bennett College, one of two historically black women’s colleges in the U.S., said, “We at Bennett have the advantage of nurturing young women who are learning how to express their voice, finding who they are and who they are becoming.”
Women’s colleges historically were heralded for building confidence, instilling leadership skills, promoting social responsibility, and career planning. Now there is data to support how well women’s colleges perform.
Research by the Women’s College Coalition found that 20 percent of the women in Congress and 20 percent of Fortune Magazine's "Most Powerful Women in Business" are graduates of women’s colleges. Graduates also accounted for 30 percent of a Businessweek list of rising women in corporate America. This is significant given that just 2 percent of female college students choose to attend a women’s college.
Despite this success, the number of women's colleges in the U.S. has declined from more than 300 in the early 1960s to fewer than 50 today. The number of women enrolled in women's colleges also continues to decline, according to recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics.
Colleges that exclusively admit men have become coeducational even more rapidly. Only three such colleges—Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Ind., Morehouse College in Atlanta, and Hampden-Sydney College in Hampden-Sydney, Va.—remain.
“Today’s women’s colleges, as always has been the case, have a focus on helping our students grow into women of substance, women who know how to live out their values wherever they are. There may be fewer of us, but continuing our work is exceedingly important,” Knox said.
Kadrien Wilson, a sophomore at Bennett College, said throughout history women have faced many hardships from fighting for the right to vote to the current struggle for equal pay.
“It is vital for women’s colleges’ to continue to provide an environment that champions the development of powerful and intelligent women so that we are able to achieve our goals, serve our communities, and be positive role models for the generation of girls to come,” Wilson said.
Wilson is also a Lina McCord Ambassador for the UMC’s Black College Fund. She found this opportunity for both a scholarship and an internship a way to “personally say thank you to The United Methodist Church for their contribution to the well-being of my school.”
Recent popular media surrounding Sheryl Sandberg’s books Lean In and Lean In For Graduates, and this year’s April 8 observance of Equal Pay Day—the date that symbolizes how far into the next year women must work to earn what men earned in the previous year—highlights a growing national commitment to support young female leaders. President Obama also has signed an executive order this year to prevent workplace discrimination.
“On a women's college campus, all student leadership positions in student government, organizations, and boards are held by females. Students look up to strong female leaders as role models and learn in a comfortable and nurturing environment that focuses on both academic and personal growth,” said Williams of Columbia College.
Chaplain McLean graduated from Bennett College, where she now serves, with a degree in biology. She sought a teaching position, only to find her call to college chaplaincy years later after attending Duke Divinity School.
McLean says that as women embrace their faith, “it continues to guide them and lead them to the word. Its helps them think critically and act in kindness here and elsewhere as they continue to grow.”
“[At a women’s college,] young women can see role models every day, and in turn we are witnesses to our young women as they enhance their gifts and skills,” said McLean.
Knox, president of Wesleyan College since 2003, has found that a pronounced sense of social responsibility drives her students to be leaders in their communities after graduation.
“I find there to be a more intentional emphasis on social responsibility, including helping and mentoring other women, and on advocating for solutions to global issues like poverty, homelessness, and the environment. Women’s college students seem to have a seriousness of purpose that may not be as evident in a coeducational setting. And what cannot be overstated at a women’s college are the lifetime friendships that our students develop.”
Under Knox’s leadership, the college has strengthened long-standing ties to the UMC with new faith and service scholarship programs that complement Wesleyan’s academics, infusing the curriculum with “a philosophy of servant leadership” that is relevant and purposeful.
To learn more about the colleges and universities related to the UMC, visit www.gbhem.org/education. For more information about women’s colleges, visit www.womenscolleges.org.
Burdakin is editorial and production assistant, Office of Interpretation, General Board of Higher Education and Ministry.