Where Women are Front and Center

Women’s colleges in the United States help develop the next generation of leaders and innovators by providing a safe and supportive environment. 

By Paromita Pain

October 2022

Where Women are Front and Center

Women’s colleges like Barnard offer education with the least number of barriers for its students, creating a safe and supportive environment. (Photograph courtesy Barnard College)

For Nandini Reddy, Barnard College in New York City was a natural choice for higher studies because she craved an environment where it was the norm for women to be in leadership. She wanted to pursue her fields of interest without any downplaying or dismissal of her thoughts. “There was something so powerful in being surrounded by a strong community of people collaborating to make their college experiences the most academically enlightening, while also being connected to a renowned research university like Columbia,” she says about her experience. Reddy is a sophomore and plans to major in sociology with a concentration in human rights and a minor in political science.

Like Barnard, women’s colleges in the United States are devoted to the development and empowerment of women and can prove to be valuable choices for furthering study in a variety of fields. Though fewer in number, these institutions advance learning in leadership and gender advocacy, and encourage the next generation of women leaders and innovators. 

Unique benefits  

A women’s college provides both a safe, supportive environment and a curriculum and campus experience that puts women at the center, instead of on the margins,” says Trisha Stubblefield, professor of English at Cottey College in Missouri. “Women thus see themselves in the world, in all careers, disciplines and endeavors, and that not only validates their own experiences, but provides them with role models in pursuing their personal and career goals.”

With a faculty-student ratio of 6:1, faculty and staff at Cottey College get to know the students quite well and provide mentoring and additional help outside of class. “Women’s colleges empower students to find their voices, recharge themselves and gain strategies to succeed in a co-ed world,” adds Stubblefield.

Naira Kothari from New Delhi, who is majoring in neuroscience at Barnard College, says education at a women’s college has changed the way she looks at and interacts with the world, while also reminding her that, with the right support, her aspirations are achievable. “The Barnard alumnae I have met are entrepreneurs, journalists, dancers, and more—all individuals with a strong independent spirit, and a self-assured nature,” she says. “Being part of a community of strong women at Barnard has taught me that I too can go after my dreams and aspirations once I put my mind to it.” 

Kothari followed two cousins and a sister to Barnard where she is a member of the Columbia women’s squash team. “Barnard celebrates women in STEM and has a number of research opportunities which I hope to utilize, and kick-start my career in this field after graduation,” she says. 

Women’s colleges provide education with the least number of barriers for its students. “Women come into their own in an environment bereft of misogyny and intimidation. They are free to inquire, to challenge, to try and to grow,” says Meredith Woo, president of Sweet Briar College.

This is a powerful draw. Nikhita Simhambhatla from Hyderabad, who is a student and part of the tennis team at Sweet Briar College in Virginia, says the safe and supportive environment of the college has helped her stay focused on her grades and goals. “All my friends love to have fun, but at the same time are very academic-oriented,” she says. “This allows me also to focus on my grades, while balancing tennis, but never leaving any opportunity to have fun.” Talking about the advantages of studying at a women’s college, Simhambhatla says that “it is extremely comforting to know that you can walk late at night and know that your campus is very secure.” 

While most women’s colleges specialize in the liberal arts, they also have students pursuing degrees in STEM and humanities. Barnard and Sweet Briar offer subjects like psychology, neuroscience, political science, economics, computer science, dance or an engineering program and others like Wellesley offer anthropology, African studies, classical studies, and cognitive and linguistic science, among other subjects. 

At women’s colleges like Sweet Briar, students are free to inquire, to challenge, to try and to grow. (Photograph courtesy Sweet Briar College)

Financial aid

Barnard College is affiliated with Columbia University in New York City, and one of the few “that provide need-based financial aid to all admitted students, regardless of citizenship,” says Ruby Bhattacharya, director of recruitment and selection at Barnard.  

Cottey College is owned by the P.E.O. Sisterhood, a philanthropic educational organization of over 210,000 women in the United States and Canada. “For over 150 years, the Sisterhood has supported women’s education through grants, awards, loans and the stewardship of Cottey College,” says Stubblefield. The Sisterhood also makes up a vast network Cottey students can draw on as they move through their lives and careers.

Sharon Walters-Bower, senior associate director of admissions and designated school official at Sweet Briar, says scholarships and financial aid at the school are significant.  

Different opportunities  

These institutions draw a wide array of students who find a fulfilling balance between academics and other interests. Several students who applied to women’s colleges chose these institutions as they encourage women to follow interests like sports, alongside their academic degrees. 

Simhambhatla transferred to Sweet Briar as a junior from a division 1 sports college as it was stressful for her to constantly perform physically while trying to focus on academics. “Academics has always been my priority, so I was looking to transfer to a school that would allow me to play while also providing me resources to study well,” she says. “Sweet Briar’s tennis coach reached out to me to be part of their division 3 team. I fell in love with Sweet Briar the minute I got to campus, and now love that it is an only-women’s campus.” 

Ishita Tibrewal, a graduate student completing her MBA/MS in sport management at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, graduated from Mount Holyoke College in 2018. “I wanted to continue playing sports at a competitive level, while also working toward a career in the sports industry,” she says. “A liberal arts education, combined with playing varsity tennis and being involved with the athletic department, would be crucial for me to pursue a career in sports—an unconventional career path for a woman.” The opportunities available through the Five College Consortium, the advantages of studying at a women’s college, and the many possibilities of attaining leadership positions on campus confirmed for Tibrewal that Mount Holyoke, a private liberal arts women’s college in Massachusetts, was the right choice for her. 

Preparing applications

Each college has different approaches to reviewing application packages from prospective students. At Barnard, “there is no formula. No one criterion or score determines admission,” says Bhattacharya. “We consider each applicant in terms of their personal qualities, intellectual capacity, and the rigor of the curriculum they have pursued, as well as their potential for achieving at Barnard.”  

And being unsure of their majors or minors at the time of submitting an application is also acceptable. “In reality, being ‘Undecided’ usually indicates that the applicant has many interests and could see themselves pursuing a variety of paths in the future. Students enrolled at Barnard typically select their major(s) and minors by the end of their second year so there is plenty of time for students to make an informed choice after taking a broad range of courses,” she says. 

Since Cottey College educates women to be contributing members of a global society, they seek students who are committed to the values of leadership, social responsibility, global awareness, and their own intellectual and personal development. “That being said, a growth mindset, a solid work ethic, and a general curiosity about the world will mark strong candidates,” says Stubblefield, the professor of English from Cottey. 

For prospective students who are apprehensive about what it may mean to attend a women’s college, Bhattacharya encourages them to not think about the experience as “the absence of men,” but rather to think of it as, “the presence of women.” 

Think about “what could it mean,” she says, “for your education and your personal growth to be surrounded by and inspired by the smartest, most ambitious women from all over the world.”

Paromita Pain is an assistant professor of Global Media Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *