Some decisions in life you never live down. Those decisions can either scare you from ever taking another chance again, or they can teach you to be more cautious the next time you pull the trigger on something. In every mistake made, there is a valuable lesson to be taught. For me, attending a liberal arts women’s college in my freshman year was a mistake I’ll probably never live down.
I was 15 years old when my mother took a wrong turn on the way to a doctor’s appointment and we ended up lost on some nameless street in Decatur, GA, and on an impromptu, scenic drive around a university campus. The buildings were Victorian-themed and statuesque. The rolling hills they stood on were perfectly manicured and the richest shade of green. Female students laid happily strewn about the grounds, bustled about with their backpacks, casually sauntered up and down the hills. We finally made our way back to the main road, but before we did we managed to catch the name of the university: Agnes Scott College.
It was two years later that I recalled that name as I filled out applications for college. I did my research and learned Agnes Scott was a pretty prestigious private college renowned for its innovative academics and notable alumni who have gone on to make impressive strides in science, business, and politics. It was my first choice. My second choice (which was really my mother’s choice) was the modest community college just 10 minutes from my home; the same one my older brother and mother had both attended previously. I received an acceptance letter from the junior college along with an invitation to enroll in honors courses my first year. About a week later I received an acceptance email from Agnes Scott College in my Gmail inbox. They offered me a small scholarship, but I didn’t care about tuition costs and lab fees, or how much I might have to borrow in student loan debt. I was in. I would get a private education. I was officially destined for greatness.
At my orientation, I was proud and absolutely honored to be entering this institution with so much history behind it. The highest members of the faculty, including the dean of students and the president herself, welcomed us with such enthusiasm and fanfare as the newest members of this exclusive club, or family rather. I never realized before then it was possible to feel so much a part of something and yet so isolated at the same time. Looking back now, the best part of orientation was truly my mother and sister being there to celebrate with me.
I never really fit though. From day one, I felt like a bass flopping about on the floor of a fisherman’s boat. For one thing, I was a commuter student, while the abundant majority of students in my class stayed on campus during the semester. I was also a Black girl in a predominantly white school. And on top of that, I was the product of a strict traditionalist Christian upbringing (who had been homeschooled all my life) entering a hotbed of radical feminism. Within my first week there I received backlash during a discussion about women’s achievements in history when I remarked that African-American women were the least recognized for their accomplishments and inventions. I clashed a couple of times with another student over her insistence on belittling the intelligence of those who believe in God.
When I raised the issue with my academic advisor, she told me, “It’s her right to question things. Maybe you’re the one with the closed mind.” I was shot down in any debate if I even so much as cited someone who was a male. I realized that my professors were also very unforgiving about me having certain unpopular perspectives about major social issues. I was told to “reevaluate my priorities” because I wasn’t raised to be pro-choice. I was called out in an American history class for not immediately agreeing with the sentiment that Hillary Clinton would make a great U.S. President. I was shushed by an English professor after I wondered aloud if feminism had anything to do with the late American poet Sylvia Plath killing herself after a life-long history of clinical depression and mental instability.
There was one political science instructor who consistently marked me down a whole letter grade every time I quoted someone in my assignments who was, allegedly, a misogynist. I soon found myself struggling in my statistics and chemistry lecture classes that year but I hesitated to seek help from the tutoring center. Tutors were juniors and seniors who sometimes doubled as teaching assistants in freshman classes so on more than one occasion I walked into the tutoring center and was met with intense glares and whispered snarky commentary. I was most certainly recognized as “that Black chick who asks too many questions.” The condescension would be so thick you could cut it with a fork and a steak knife. Ironically, at a women’s college that touted self-realization and the freedom to question things and make waves, I was forever being boxed in, criticized for not going with the flow, and punished for my different opinions. My third meeting with my adviser was very much involuntary. It mostly consisted of her telling me that I was showing signs of “neglect” in certain classes and that she was worried that something in my personal life might have been contributing to my “failing” academic performance. I wondered if I was really failing her expectations at all; perhaps I was just confirming that I didn’t belong there anyway.
It wasn’t just the politics of it all. It was also the rampant sexual activity. Before class, girls chatted about hookups with guys off campus. After class, they chatted about weekend hangs where they could meet guys to hook up with, while other girls experimented with each other in the dorms. I recall one time my mother and sister came down to have lunch with me in the garden outside of my school’s library. By the time I met up with them, they were both still stunned and wide-eyed, having encountered two female students making out passionately on one of the walking paths. My mother was surprised to learn that this had become the norm for me. Most of the seniors had girlfriends on-campus, and boyfriends to go back home to. According to them, they weren’t lesbians or bisexual, they were just too sexually liberated to be restricted to monogamous relationships. I didn’t judge them for their risqué ways although it surprised me. But they certainly judged me for not partaking in the conversations about their sexual escapades. I wasn’t the frustrated virgin dying to lose it. I wasn’t the church girl desperate to shed her promise ring. That made me an anomaly in their book– and an outsider.
I finished my freshman semester off with a pretty bleak looking transcript. I took a year off and wound up enrolling in online classes at a less expensive public HBCU. I excelled in my courses and grew confident enough in myself to actually want to continue my learning. It would take me more than eight years, along with several college major changes, but I would finally earn my Bachelor’s degree.
My terrible experience at a private women’s college certainly isn’t the standard. For others, it has been a fulfilling journey of self-discovery. Unfortunately, I have nothing to show for my experience except a badly bruised ego, a final transcript full of Bs and Ds, and an impressive grudge I’ve developed against privileged white feminists. I wasn’t empowered, or inspired to achieve my own greatness, or encouraged to pave my own path. I was ridiculed for forging my own way and having my own thoughts.
As a young Black woman, no one (not my classmates or my professors) stepped out of their comfort zone long enough to acknowledge my culture or my ethnic identity as part of their discussions. I will teach my future Black daughter that they don’t need a private higher education to affirm that they are smart, brilliant, and destined for greatness. I will also teach them that there are more important factors to consider in picking a college than its name or reputation. The right college won’t try to remake them or rebrand them; the right college will accept them for who they are as an individual.