5 reasons attending an all women’s college changed my life for the better

Last week I received an email from a reader, aged 17, who was looking at colleges in the USA and wanted to know where I went to learn about business and fashion before giving “birth” to Fashion Foie Gras. Because I am overwhelming proud of the path I took at uni, I didn’t hesitate for a moment to write back and explain that I chose the road less travelled and went to an all-girls school in Virginia, Sweet Briar College. Her response was one I was more or less expecting. She wrote, “Really, YOU went to all girls school? That’s weird. Thought that was just for a kind of strange kind of woman.” I think I probably knew where she was going with that and decided I’d take a few minutes to write an email about all the reasons an all women’s college provided me with absolutely everything I needed to confidently start and maintain a business. I then asked her if she wouldn’t mind me quoting the email to write a full piece for FFG readers and future college applicants.

Here’s the thing, ladies. All women’s colleges are shrinking. Some are shutting, some are going co-ed and others are, let’s be honest, at risk of endangerment. I sit here today and look back at my four years at Sweet Briar College and wouldn’t trade in those years for all the money in the world. To this day people still question why on earth I would choose to attend an all women’s college. And to this day I tell them that 85% of the reason I am where I am today is because of the women I spent four years with in the rolling hills of Virginia. 

So… here’s the truth. I never actually intended to go to an single sex college after high school.

When I was 18, my mother and I travelled up and down the east coast of America looking at universities. I had a list a mile long of potential places to call home for the next four years and I was convinced that home would hit me as soon as I stepped onto campus. I was confident that the moment  my foot set down in one place or another, I would know this to be the place I was meant to steer towards. I was 18, completely ignorant of the ways of the world and wanted so fiercely to believe that I could find a place that wouldn’t scare the hell out of the natural homebody that I was at the time. 

Bigger campuses just felt big. You got the idea you were just an ant in a massive ant farm that churned out lawyers, doctors, business professionals and more, year after year. Truly, I felt zero personality in the places I visited. I thought I was going to attend a big state school and just get lost in the madness for four years before trying to figure out what the hell I would actually do with my life. I’d join a sorority, make good friends and maybe meet Mr. Right, if I was lucky. Then I’d go to vet school and move back to my home state to practice where I’d grown up. Life seemed like it had a map already and I was just along for the ride. Then, we drove onto Sweet Briar’s campus.

I know now that every girl that attends Sweet Briar had the same experience I am about to describe. The college itself is set on 3,300 acres of land in the mountains of Virginia and has been on The Princeton Review’s most beautiful American campuses list for as long as it’s been around. This is, quite simply, heaven on earth. When we drove through the main gates two deer ran across the path in the most beautiful manner I had ever witnessed. We have joked for years that there was an admissions officer standing on the sidelines saying “queue the deer” as we drove onto the grounds. It was there, in that moment, as I looked upon the campus, that I knew this was home – without knowing anything else. Meeting a few women in attendance, professors, councilors and more made it all that more official. The one thing I had never ever considered was happening – I was going to an all women’s college. 

Just one of the many traditions at Sweet Briar under way – as freshmen… this is where it all starts!

So for those of you asking “why a women’s college?” – here’s why I went and why I look back and remember some of the fondest memories of my life…

1. First and foremost I’ll mention the education. While I was at Sweet Briar, not one of my classes had over 30 girls in any lecture. We sat mostly at round tables for classes and were treated as adults, and individuals, from the minute we stepped onto campus. Every opinion mattered and every voice was heard. Although, looking back I remember most of us wore our pajamas to any classes taking place before 11am and I have no idea how any of the professors took us seriously when we appeared in class with Rainbow Brite on our trousers. Just another joy of attending an all women’s college – the only time you really got gussied up was on the weekends or for nights out. Class time was our time to concentrate on actually learning something. Imagine that.

2. Being at an all women’s college gave me courage, confidence and a voice. This is the place I learned about leadership, bravery, taking chances and learning to both win and lose gracefully. I was given the space to step out of my comfort zone regularly and to experiment with leadership, all the while feeling like if the bottom fell out I’d have a support network to teach me how to rebound from it all. Failing is an important lesson to learn. Knowing you can get back up again, no matter what, is infinitely more valuable. I learned ALL of this at an all women’s college.

3. My freshmen year at Sweet Briar we were briefed on the traditions of the college. There were certain doors only seniors could walk through (and if you were caught touching them you would have to wash them with toothbrushes, while seniors covered you with ketchup and mustard – sounds ridiculous but was glorious fun), there were rivalries between classes, tap clubs that were more or less sororities and touching moments that have been honored since the college’s founding in 1901. 

For example, when a member of your class becomes engaged, you stand with your classmates in the quad and a circle is formed with each of you holding a string that has been lead around the circle. The engagement ring is placed on the string and sent around the circle a number of times for everyone to examine. Finally, on the last round, the owner of the ring takes it and places it on her finger, to the surprise of all her classmates. It was one of my favourite traditions. Well, that and step singing. This is the tradition where freshmen, sophomores and juniors say goodbye to the senior class. As a senior, I remember crying buckets of tears finally having reached the point of goodbye. I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to stay in this “bubble” forever and thought I’d find a way to return one day as a teacher. 

Step singing

4. From the minute you become a Sweet Briar women you feel the full weight of the Sweet Briar network. The women that leave Sweet Briar never leave this all women’s college behind them. You’ll find that looking through the list of women who graduated SBC is like looking through a list of who’s who in women shaping the world today. The latest name you may recognize is the founder of Task Rabbit, Leah Busque, a woman I shared halls with my freshman year. An older name you may recognise is Janet Lee Bouvier, mother of Jackie Kennedy Onassis. 

5. More important than any alumnae network at an all women’s college are the friendships you form with your classmates. An all women’s college affords you the opportunity to form relationships with women that are as solid as cement. I have lived in London now for nearly 13 years, since graduating from Sweet Briar. Even after all of the friendships I have formed here,  the women I speak to now, the ones I call when I need absolutely anything, are the women that I met at Sweet Briar College. The ties formed are unbreakable. I love these women as if they were my actual physical sisters and should they ever ask me to, I’d work as hard as I could to move mountains for them. But, that doesn’t just apply to the best friends, that applies to the network of women that have kept the traditions of all women’s colleges alive. 

And for me, the Sweet Briar network is present every single day of my life. Just this morning an email went out from Boden, here in the UK, that featured FFG and me. Before I had even seen the email itself, a fellow Sweet Briar girl had posted it on her Facebook in the USA, tagging me and giving me the traditional Sweet Briar shout out. We never loose sight of one another and we’re always present to cheer each other on. An all women’s college doesn’t just give you a stellar, irreplaceable education, it gives you THOUSANDS of sisters in this rather scary massive world.

Simply stated, the one decision I made, to attend an all women’s college, changed the entire course of my life. It’s not an overstatement, it’s the truth. I wouldn’t change a thing. And when I get emails from young women assuming they know a thing or two about the “type” of women that attend women’s colleges, I feel I have to step up and share how wrong they are. I will openly state that Fashion Foie Gras would not exist at all had I not been taught to stick my neck out wherever I can to try new things – a lesson I learned while in residence at SBC.

Sweet Briar will always be home for me and the family, with each graduating class, will continue to grow…

So, if you are thinking about colleges, don’t mark out single sex schools. They are still some of the most impressive institutions in America today. To my past, present and future Sweet Briar girls…. Holla, Holla, ladies, and don’t forget the pearls.

Snow days at Sweet Briar were the best. 

Graduation day with my best friend, Brook.

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