Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Losing a Sister...School

I am an accidental women's college graduate. After graduating from a large state school with a bachelors in English, I packed up everything I owned and moved east...well, east is relative in this case.  East for me meant moving from western Michigan to Pittsburgh.  I didn't have a Pennsylvania teaching certificate, I didn't have a job, and I barely had a place to live.  Yet, within three days of moving states, I had an interview for a Resident Director position at Chatham College, a small, liberal arts, women's college, idyllically situated in the heart of Pittsburgh on a grassy hill between Shadyside and Squirrel Hill.  As an undergrad, I had served as both a Resident Assistant (remember those annoying college students who tried to get you to go to floor meetings and who would plan monthly programs about eating disorders or stress?  Yup, that was me) and as a hall Assistant Director (remember those
Rea Hall, Chatham College by CampusExplorer
annoying upper-level students who wore beepers and broke up the parties?  Yup, that was me). So when I moved to Pittsburgh without the proper licence to apply for teaching jobs, I applied for the jobs that I was qualified for - anything in residence life.  And within a week of moving to Pittsburgh, to a really horrible apartment in the South Hills, I packed up once again and moved into Rea Hall on Chatham's campus as the Resident Director.  I never expected to find myself living and working at a women's college.  I certainly never exected to graduate from one.  However, I would not be the woman I am today without my experiences at a women's college.

I'm not going to paint an overly idealistic picture of living and working and going to school at a women's college.  Let's face it - when you work, live, and go to school in the same place, there will be challenges.  At the time, I was the only married person living on the all female campus, which meant that my husband was the only...ONLY guy living on campus.  And while this might seem like the set-up for an adult-only film, the reality was quite different. The number of calls that we received at odd hours to help move furniture, to intervene in disputes, to ask advice were too many to fathom. But it is also what I recall fondly about our experience of living right
Photo of Rea Coffeehouse from The Communique'
above the only place (besides your own room) where you could smoke inside (of course I am speaking of Rea Coffeehouse).  The community that is almost instantly built when you join this small collective known as women's college students.  I found something at Chatham that I had missed in my undergraduate education, something that is very hard to define unless you are in the know.

One of the greats - Don Adam
For me, Chatham was not just a job.  It was a place where I got to know students from a much larger pool of experiences than I had ever known in the large state school that I attended.  Because I worked there, I also had an opportunity to take graduate courses through Chatham and completed my Masters in Liberal Arts. The stories that I could tell you!  Like the times (yes, plural) I took Japanese students white water rafting down the Youghiogeny River; it's where I learned how to yell out directions in Japanese. Hidari! Or British Literature with Don Adam (you know he was once Robert Frost's neighbor).  Remember him smoking Misti Lights all the way up Niagra-on-the-Lake to see "Heartbreak House" at the Shaw Festival?  Now, there was a storyteller.  Remember Eid dinners in Laughlin?  All day spent cooking, and all night spent eating. And the trip to Hopital Albert Schweitzer in Haiti's Artibonite Valley. I will never forget the face of the little boy who pressed his face against the screened porch of our dining room to cry "Fi! Fi! Fi!" to catch our attention as we ate breakfast. Or the little child that cried out in his mother's arms as he saw "ghosts" hiking up the mountain when we walked by. Or meeting Gwen Mellon.  I remember talking with heartbroken students at three in the morning and picking up new students from the airport, fresh off a plane from Nigeria who were seeing snow for the first time. At Chatham, I didn't just take classes.  I was engaged in a small community of women who cared, who collaborated, and who were (and still are) committed to helping the larger community they find themselves in.  And whereas some may argue that the notion of single-sex education is antiquated, whose time has passed, I know that they are wrong.  My experiences as both staff and as a student at a women's college enlarged the way that I understand and engage with my world.  I am a better me because of my experiences at a women's college.

Which is why it hit me so hard this afternoon when I received an email from Chatham's Alumni Office about the upcoming vote to change Chatham over to a co-ed institution.  Although I understand that these are difficult times for small, private institutions of high education, I am deeply saddened to hear that another one of the sister schools may be lost.  After surviving attacks on the usefulness of women's education, after surviving the Great Depression, after surviving through such a long and complex history, thriving for over 140 years, it is troubling that it has come to this.  Fortunately, Chatham's fate is not yet sealed.  There are a number of regional meetings taking place prior to the board's vote in June.  And, if you would like to learn more about the importance of Chatham, of what she means to her alumnae, and of the significance of a women's college education, I would encourage you to check out savechatham.com to learn more.

I may be an accidental women's college graduate, but I am a damn proud one.


Anonymous said...

Research has proven that having a single-sex education doesn't really help, at least in terms of learning. In regards to the experiences of white water rafting and other such activities, even large state institutions (let alone a small private college, from which I'm a graduate) offer those types of opportunities. You just have to have the motivation to look for them. Also, you can argue that guys will be distracted by the girls and vice versa, but how are we to fine-tune our skills interactng with men (both relationally and academically) if those opportunities are not presented to us. You can love or hate my comment as much as you want, but I feel like this has gotten blown out of proportions.

Kelly McKown said...

Jen, I'm so thankful to read such an impassioned plea. I was lucky enough to be at Chatham during the same time as you, and my thoughts echo yours nearly completely! Please join us at savechatham.com!

Jennifer Ward said...

Kelly! I would love to catch up! I have very vivid memories of your goals for a life in politics!

In response to "Anonymous": True, single-sex education is not for everyone, but that does not mean there is not a place or need for women's colleges. Especially given the political realities faced by half our population as women do not represent half, or even 20% for that matter, of our elected representatives. But an even better argument for women's colleges can be seen in what the graduates of these institutions have accomplished.

An article by Amy Tennery posted earlier this fall about her experience at a women's college (Scripps) speaks to why women's colleges are still relevant:

"In 2006, the Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research found that 'students from women’s colleges attain a greater number of prominent leadership positions and more responsibility than women who attend coeducational institutions.' Among the top 50 colleges overall in the U.S., women comprised less than a third of the student body presidents, despite the fact that women have comprised roughly 57 percent of U.S. college students for the last decade. It’s no wonder then, that a disproportionate number of female Congress members are women’s college graduates."

Michele (Davies) Turner said...

Hi jen ward! One of your former Rae gals-- in fact lived right beside sarah. Love what you wrote and put my feelings totally into the words i couldn't come up with...

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