On any given day I can walk across campus and see students in workout cloths, dresses, suits, and lab coats. Occasionally I will even see students traipsing across campus in their ballet leotards with slippers thrown across their shoulder. When I ask students how they are doing, I hear about progress on their senior comprehensives, a paper being due, and, umm, cramps…did I mention I work at an all-women’s college?
I work at Saint Mary’s College, which is a Catholic Women’s college in northern Indiana (across the street from the University of Notre Dame) with about 1,500 students. When I tell people that I work at a women’s college I get a mix of reactions. First are the people who think I am joking. “Women’s colleges don’t exist anymore.” Then there are the people who think it must be so uplifting. “I bet it is wonderful. I bet everyone is supportive and feminism must be so strong there.” Then there are the “Negative Nancys” of the world who think it must be one giant cat fight over here. “I couldn’t deal with all that estrogen,” they say. Let me state for the record: women’s colleges do exist. And while there are plenty of feminists here, that doesn’t speak for the entire student body, and to my knowledge, no cat fights have been reported to security.
What this place is really about, and women’s colleges in general, is leadership. Only 2% of female students will attend one of the 47 women’s colleges in the United States. That might not sound like a lot, but consider this. Twenty percent of Congresswomen attended a women’s college. Also, when Businessweek comprised a list of rising women in corporate America, 30% of them had also come from women’s colleges. I can add to these stats by saying that working at Saint Mary’s College I have been surround by young women who are confident, self-aware, and conscious of their own power. Before the many wondrous co-ed institutions interject, I am not saying that there are not strong female students on your campuses. But here these women demonstrate a strength of conviction that, in my experience having worked at two co-ed institutions prior, is amplified. There is not a shortage of leadership opportunities, with more than 80 student clubs and organizations on this small campus, and these women find their causes and get involved. If they don’t find a club they are passionate about, they start one.
There are young women here who take charge and create change. In my year and a half being at Saint Mary’s College (SMC) I have seen these young women plan and host a diversity conference, plan and orchestrate large concerts, have weeks of action to raise awareness and change perceptions, and have even seen them raise over $100,000 for a children’s hospital. If a person were to say a Saint Mary’s College student couldn’t do something, I would challenge them to think again. Students here live the mission to develop their talents and make a difference in the world.
Despite all this strength, passion, intercultural awareness of these young women, the campus is not immune to the problem of cyber unpleasantness, and even bullying.
Like many other campuses, there are Facebook “confession pages” run by people we can’t pin down and provide a platform for negative comments. The negativity could include upperclassmen ripping on freshman for being homesick, tearing down the curvy girl for exercising, and don’t get me started on the comments aimed at the women across the street. Beyond confession pages, there are unflattering Twitter hashtags and Tumblr pages, and this doesn’t include what they might say on their personal accounts.
So what can we do as an institution? Hire somebody to constantly patrol the ever-growing social media-sphere? Close our doors and pretend that our world solely exists in what is tangible? While I have no plan to eradicate cyber bullying, I do have some small things that we at Saint Mary’s do and suggestions on what we can do better.
What we do:
When people bring it to our attention that this is going on and we can identify the student, our action often results in a conduct hearing.
We hold leaders responsible. Whether it is an athlete, organization leader, or other student leader, if they cyber bully, they are likely to lose their position.
We also encourage other students to avoid visiting “confession” and similar pages. After all if no one follows the offensive pages, then the pages might lose followers and die off.
Things all colleges/universities could be doing:
Recognize students who live positively on their social media pages. This could be an award, a high five, or even a cookie. (Students do love cookies and pizza, right?) Supporting the positive will always outweigh punishing the negative.
Create positivity pages. One of the most exciting things in recent years for me was the invention of Hellogiggles.com, a site complete dedicated to positivity and civil discourse.
Speaking of civil discourse, we should teach students what that means and how to do it. After all, we are not all of a sudden going to agree on everything, so let’s show them how to handle conflict.
Saint Mary’s College is a wonderful place where female students are challenged and pushed to be the best versions of their selves. What that means in today’s world is giving them the skills to have a positive academic, personal, work and social media life. With wonderful sites like Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and OrgSync, the ways to connect with each other are growing exponentially. We need to teach all of our students how to let their virtual presence not undercut their real life character.