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“You go to a Women’s College?!” What It’s Like to Go to a Single-Sex School

When I say that I attend a women’s college, I’m usually met with a mixture of palpable confusion and mild disgust. Follow-up questions include: “Are you a lesbian?” “Did you apply to any co-ed schools?” “Was your high school all girls?” And, of course, the concise but far-reaching: “Why?”

The first three questions are easy to answer—“Not that it bears any considerable relevance to my current educational status, but no, yes, no.” The final question, however, is more involved. As a senior at Barnard College, I often find myself thrust into the precarious position of Ambassador Speaking On Behalf of Women’s Colleges Everywhere, a position I thoughtfully and respectfully decline. I don’t claim to speak from every student’s perspective, but I will try to answer why, from my experience, women’s colleges are viable institutions. And I’ll also be honest about the things I don’t always love about my women’s college experience.

Statistically speaking, attending a women’s college is like rigging the achievement lottery. Although only 2% of all women who graduate from college in the United States graduate from a women’s college, over 20% of the women in congress and over 30% of the female CEOs running Fortune 500 companies graduated from a women’s college. That’s nuts. (In fact, I believe “that’s nuts” is the official analytical response to the phenomenon.)

Women’s colleges also provide unparalleled resources. Here at Barnard, we have a nationally ranked Office of Career Development that provides more internships than students; a 7:1 student to faculty ratio; lecture series and leadership labs geared specifically toward women; and over 60% of our faculty is female (compared to a national average in the mid-thirties ). And my sense is that Barnard is not an exception to the rule in this regard—many women’s colleges offer equally impressive resources, initiatives, and opportunities. Plus, for some reason, our student body president, club leaders, and valedictorian are always women. Crazy! Top that all off with engaged, engaging, curious, brilliant, and ambitious classmates, and you’ve got a recipe for success that makes those crazy statistics seem like more of a foregone conclusion than a mathematical fluke.

However, as much as I value my Barnard education, I’d be lying if I said the experience was nothing but the image of sweater-clad collegiettes™ on the quad—you know, the ivy-covered, pumpkin-spice latte-inducing picture they present on the college brochure. In other words, it’s not ALWAYS an empowering, inspiring, engaging hub of intellectual feminist debate. Academically, I couldn’t ask for much more. (Particularly since there’s complete cross-enrollment between Barnard and Columbia.) But socially, I’ve always felt marginally deprived of dormcest, straight male friends, and bonding with the dudes from my freshman hall. Granted, I’ve combated that deprivation by joining clubs and meeting people around campus (and I can’t say that foregoing awkward dormcest drama is necessarily a negative…), but I’m still living a less-than-Animal House college career.

In terms of dating and hooking up, I can only speak anecdotally, based on the experiences of my friends. (I’m one of those nerds who dated the same guy since she was sixteen… sorry, I’m boring.) Barnard students, like all college students, are subject to everything from casual dating to hook-ups to serious relationships. It happens all the time. But when we’re talking ratios, the odds are stacked in the dudes’ favor. Let me put it this way: My best friend just celebrated her one-year anniversary with an amazing guy she met through mutual (guy) friends at Columbia, but I’d be lying if I said that even she hasn’t complained about the lack of suitable suitors. Are you going to meet the love of your life at a women’s college? Maybe. Are you going to meet the love of your life at a co-ed college? Maybe. In either case, you’ll have access to guys. (Particularly when you go to a college within a larger university system and you happen to live in New York City. Just saying.)

At the end of the day, my women’s college experience is much like any college experience. If you’re looking for a lesbian enclave or a completely hetero-normative experience, you’re looking in the wrong place. I haven’t experienced any of the “Legally Blonde”-style chick-drama some people might associate with an all-female space, but I also haven’t had a girl crush on every person I’ve met. I guess what I’m trying to say is, I go to college just like the next person. Sure, my women’s college experience is unique, and that seems foreign and scary to a lot of people, but it’s not like I’m taking classes in Narnia. There are things that I love and things that could be better. Unless you catch me in the middle of finals, I can confidently say that there are more things that I love than not. So, I consider myself lucky.

As a Barnard student, I have the unique advantage of enjoying the best of both worlds – I attend a women’s college within a larger co-ed university, which means that I take classes at and participate in clubs and organizations at both Columbia and Barnard – so I feel qualified to defend the women’s college experience, without stipulating its infallibility.

Interested in a women’s college? I’ve learned that, instead of asking a series of (moderately offensive) questions, it’s worth doing the research to check it out firsthand.

Rachel Peck is a senior at Barnard College, Class of 2012, where she is majoring in English and Theatre and minoring in Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. Although she admits to actually enjoying high school in her hometown of Bexley, OH, her favorite thing to do is explore her new--slightly more exciting--home, New York City. When she isn't watching good (and bad...) TV, finding excuses to plan dinner with friends, window shopping, or napping, Rachel enjoys working for the Barnard admissions office, serving on her sorority's various boards, and writing for whoever will read it.  You can also follow her on Twitter (@peckrachel) if you're into that.
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