When I was in high school in the late 1970s, I was very good at doing well in my classes, but not very good at many of the other aspects of life that make being a teenager fun. This was due, at least in part, to the role that was often assigned to book-smart girls in high school at that time.
All that changed when I was invited to attend a conference for Junior Achievement almost 30 years ago this week. I can still see the (teenage) faces of some of the people who accompanied me on that trip, all of whom I eventually lost touch with. However, every once in a while, images of the conference will appear in my memory. After thirty years, it is as if the conference was just yesterday.
I didn’t know what to expect of a four day conference that everyone said was immensely fun. But I dutifully brought some “business” clothes along with some dresses appropriate for dances, formal and otherwise, and boarded a bus to Pennsylvania and the Pocono Mountains. When I arrived at the conference, an amazing transformation began to take place. I listened to speakers, attended workshops, and found myself talking about current events with other high school students who were interested in the same things. Obviously book-smart teens were held up as leaders, and I began to see myself in a different light. Perhaps I, too, could be more than a wallflower! I went to dances and danced, and met people from places I thought was very far away. My parents still say that they put one daughter on that bus, and a different daughter came home. Having a space in which I could be both my book-smart self and a teenager was liberating, and I was never quite the same person.
As a professor at the last women’s college in Ohio, I see our mission in the same light. We provide women with an opportunity to be their true selves, to not be constrained by the expectations that might limit them in some colleges. Our campus leaders are all women, some single mothers, and there is never a question of whether they are capable of doing their jobs. Many of our teachers are women, even in mathematics and the sciences. Students studying with us sometimes tell us to our faces that “well, you know, girls just aren’t good at math”. We laugh at that and steer them back to their studies, as we obviously know better. We pride ourselves in helping our women, young and otherwise, find their own voice, even as we help them find something worth speaking out about. Indeed, our motto is “Values, Voice, Vision.”
I find hope in some of the things I see today. The “High School Musical” phenomenon presents a book-smart heroine who is also beautiful and talented, and accepted for all aspects of her personality. In fact, she even not only gets the starring role in the play, but also wins the admiration of the popular guy. I hope that this is a sign that today’s young people are allowed to develop all aspects of their personality. However, someday, should my daughter find herself constrained by the expectations that society puts on her, and feels that she must become one-dimensional, one thing I will recommend is that she investigate attending a women’s college. Or, perhaps, maybe she should go to a conference in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania.