A new class of young women just arrived on Sweet Briar College’s idyllic Virginia campus, just like they have each fall since 1906. But this year, their arrival was anything but certain. Last spring, when the class of 2015 graduated, they thought they'd be the last to do so. The college was planning to close over the summer, forcing the rest of the students to finish elsewhere.
"Ladies, please know that giving up is always on the table,” said Teresa Tomlinson, class of '87, in her commencement speech, “Successful leaders, however, are defined by those that do not choose it. They choose to persevere."
Sweet Briar, a women’s liberal arts college outside Lynchburg, VA, chose to do just that. After the school announced it would shut its doors this summer due to “insurmountable financial difficulties,” an alumni group called Saving Sweet Briar rallied, raising $12 million. It was because of these donations that the attorney general of Virginia agreed to release $16 million from the school's endowment — enough to keep the college open.
For the first half of Sweet Briar's existence, single-sex education was the norm. In 1960, there were 230 women-only colleges in the U.S. But, as more and more schools integrated, that number plummeted. Today, there are just 43 — a number that raises new questions about the relevance of single-sex education in 2015.
We spoke with several Sweet Briar alumnae about why they chose the school and support it. Their reasons — ranging from physical safety to a strong sense of community — suggest that the need for colleges like Sweet Briar is alive and well.
“I chose Sweet Briar because I really liked Sweet Briar"
When we asked women why they chose this school, the answers varied by generation. Women who attended in the '80s or later — when co-ed options were multiplying — were more likely to say they hadn't sought out single-sex education.
“I chose Sweet Briar because I really liked Sweet Briar, not because I specifically wanted to attend a women’s college,” said Margaretta Colangelo, class of 1987 and now the president of U1 Technologies.
Amelia Currin, who started at Sweet Briar this fall, agreed. “I liked the academics; I liked how the professors really care about their students,” she said.“If I went to a big university, I really wouldn’t get that one-on-one attention."
For Juliette Arnheim, class of 1961, however, Sweet Briar was one of a limited number of options open to her in the 1950s. A Tennessee native, her choice was either the University of Tennessee or a women’s college. Since she didn't want to go a large state school, Sweet Briar it was.
"A very supportive social and emotional environment"
Whatever their stated reason for attending, as soon as the Sweet Briar women started digging deep into what they loved about their school, many brought up the community — a tight-knit, supportive atmosphere that many link, at least indirectly, to the lack of men. “There’s a very supportive social and emotional environment...when men are not around,” said Tomlinson.
This is especially true within typically male-dominated STEM studies. Colangelo created a “Sweet Briar Women In STEM” group this summer to offer alumni mentoring from remarkably successful women, including Leah Busque. Busque, class of 2001, is the founder and CEO of Task Rabbit; she recently joined the Sweet Briar board of directors.
“I really feel like I found my confidence at Sweet Briar,” she said. “I found my voice.”
“In a field that is very heavily dominated by men...it was so refreshing and so wonderful to be able to study in a place that was dedicated to women’s education,” Busque said. Without the pressures that come up in co-ed classes, Busque was able to get a footing in these disciplines. She referred to a recent study that showed that women in small groups with other women are less anxious and more likely to participate in STEM classes.
“I really feel like I found my confidence at Sweet Briar,” Busque said. “I found my voice.”
"Zero reported sex offenses"
Arnheim “didn’t really miss male participation in class,” but wished she had more interactions with men outside of class. She and other grads say that the lack of 'boy friends' along with boyfriends didn't prepare them well for real life. Most of Arnheim’s interactions with men were “synthetic” — they revolved around riding a bus off campus, going to a dance, and riding a bus back to campus.
Although Sweet Briar women can miss out on organic relationships with men, they may be more protected from sexual assault. In 2011, 2012, and 2013, there were zero reported sex offenses at Sweet Briar. In fact, the school's crime log is filled with zeros, with the exception of a few burglaries and a handful of liquor law violations.
The crime log is filled with zeros, with the exception of a few burglaries and a handful of liquor law violations.
Across women’s colleges, there are very low numbers for sexual assaults and other violent crimes. In 2013, there were four reported forcible sex offenses on campus at Smith College, two reported at Mount Holyoke, six reported at Wellesley College, four reported at Bryn Mawr College, and two reported at Barnard College.
Those numbers are small compared to similarly sized coed colleges. In 2013, there were 17 reported forcible sex offenses at Middlebury College, 24 reported at Vassar College, and 57 reported forcible rapes at Swarthmore College.
"We're proud of our college"
Everyone we interviewed — from those who started at Sweet Briar last week to grads from decades ago — said that the best way to see the value of both Sweet Briar and women’s colleges generally is to look at the women that the schools produce.
Colangelo put together a list of “Notable Women and their Alma Maters” that focuses on those who attended women’s colleges. The list spans industries and includes political leaders like Nancy Pelosi, Madeleine Albright, Gabby Giffords, and, of course, Hillary Clinton, who graduated from Wellesley in 1969.
“I just have more confidence in the school now than ever before"
But it’s not only national leaders who prove the value of a women’s college education. Currin, the new student we spoke with, became more passionate about the school by watching the strength and ability of the alumnae who saved it. “I just have more confidence in the school now than ever,” she explains.
“We’re proud of our college, and we are intelligent and participating members of our community,” Arnheim said when asked how she would convince someone to go to Sweet Briar. “I think that says more than anything."