The Real Joys — & Dangers — Of Being A College Freshwoman Now

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The University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
In our series A Class Of Their Own, Refinery29 is following five college freshwomen from across the country as they define their identities and relationships.

Few transitions are as seismic as the shift from pre-college life to freshman year. It's a moment of both immense opportunity and uncertainty, which is why this school year, we're following five freshwomen in different regions of the country as they navigate it.

This is our A Class Of Our Own series, and the first-year students in it are formidable. Living away from home and pursuing educational, social, and extracurricular experiences with far more independence than in high school, these women have access to an unprecedented buffet of ways to define (or redefine) their identities. At the same time, they face serious challenges, from mounting student loan debt to the risks of campus violence, substance abuse, and sexual assault.
Our freshman five include: a young woman who lost her family and her right arm in Sierra Leone's civil war and went on to become first an international symbol of peace, then a soccer-playing teen like any other; a student thrilled by the possibilities of life at a Big Ten school, hoping to realize her lifelong dream of joining a sorority; a Native American woman who has just left the San Carlos Apache Reservation in Arizona for the first time to attend community college; a psychology major maneuvering a long-distance relationship with her boyfriend of three years; and an Oakland teen who grew up in foster care and now plans to start an organization to help other kids in the system, including LGBTQ youth like herself.

Our society takes young women less seriously than it does any other group. Young women face the same barriers to respect that women of all ages do, but that's compounded by the assumption that under-21s haven't been alive long enough to hold a valid opinion. It's clear these women are a force to be reckoned with, and it's time we heard their voices.

Our society takes young women less seriously than any other group, but they are a force to be reckoned with

Today, 20.2 million people in the U.S. are enrolled in college. It may not be for everyone (some opt for jobs or vocational training instead, and it seems we'll never stop hearing about the legendary handful of entrepreneurial college dropouts, such as Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, who went on to become billionaires), but the vast majority of American high school grads attend a college or university. In April, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 68.4% of high school grads were enrolled in higher education.

That percentage might be even greater if college weren't such an expensive endeavor. Of the class of 2015, 71% graduated with student loan debt, with the average debt hitting $35,000. That's around twice the average debt of a student borrower in the class of 1995, only 50% of whom graduated with debt. Still, despite the soaring and, for some, insurmountable cost of college, a bachelor's degree still pays off for many. In 2013, graduates of four-year college programs earned an average of 98% more per hour than those without a degree — the largest grad-vs.-non-grad pay gap in history.
Photo: Karen Cowled/Alamy.
The Savannah College of Art and Design in Savannah, Georgia.
It's not just future financial prospects that make attending college exciting today. Career options for women continue to expand, with women more likely than ever before to pursue jobs in traditionally male-dominated fields such as medicine, technology, and engineering (women in their early 30s are as likely to be lawyers or doctors as teachers or secretaries, although the gender pay gap persists).

And as students map out their professional futures, millennials' acceptance of non-hetero sexual identities, sexual exploration, and gender fluidity provides them greater freedom to live and love outside of pre-defined lines. Today's college women are joining socially and politically active communities (2016 marks the first year that many now-freshwomen will be able to vote in a presidential election), and while under-24s vote at exceptionally low rates, that doesn't mean they're apathetic. In just the 2014 fall semester, at least 160 student protests took place at colleges across the country as part of a resurgence of student activism.

Millennial acceptance of non-hetero sexual identities, sexual exploration, and gender fluidity provides college students freedom to live and love outside of pre-defined lines.

These student activists have a lot to tackle, including racism, police violence, sexism, and campus sexual assault, which some 23% of college women report experiencing. Other college pitfalls include high rates of STIs (one in four students has one), the risks associated with binge drinking (some 1,825 college students between 18 and 24 die from unintentional, alcohol-related injuries each year, with 599,000 injured while drinking), and campus violence (the October 1 shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon was the 17th on a college campus in 2015).

To begin college, then, is to enter a world of both possibility and risk, and the women featured in A Class Of Their Own are offering a personal view into that journey. Follow along as we roll out their stories and discover the hopes, fears, and goals of the class of 2019. These are their words, their voices, their identities, and their futures.

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