Whenever I’m away from Wellesley College, like I am now, and I introduce myself to strangers by answering the unavoidable questions (Where are you from? What do you study?), I sometimes hope they don’t know what my school is. Chances are, they don’t and we move on to talk about coffee shops in the area or TV shows we’ve been watching. But when they do, the conversation takes a tiring turn for the complicated. “Wait, isn’t Wellesley all-women? Oh geez, how is that?”
I have no one-liner to answer this. Even now, after two years, I’m at a real loss for how to describe Wellesley. Adjectives just don’t do it, and neither do pictures or my feminist ramblings on Why The All-Women’s Education Is Still Relevant.
So here is a story instead, one that takes place before college. It was the Spring semester of my senior year in high school, and I was going mad debating whether or not to commit to Wellesley. I loved it at first. I had seen the campus on an unplanned visit and something – the way the gothic buildings hid behind swaying trees, or how all the walking paths were winding and meandering – had evoked a revelatory feeling of ‘this is it’. And yet, in the months following, hesitance developed. An intricate pros-and-cons lists built up, giving me nothing but a sense of impending doom. Soon I was terrified. There were the obvious reasons (I loved my male friends, I had spent most of my life in Texas co-ed schools), but there were also the ones that weren’t so obvious, that fuelled my fear without my knowing it. The truth is that, at the time, I was incredibly uncomfortable with myself. I had sex for the first time and, instead of excitedly sharing the details with my friends or sister, I told no one at all for two years. I spoke like a liberal Texan, but my sexuality was deeply and confusingly associated with shame; sex was linked with self-disgust and secrecy.
But sexuality, I discovered, was a huge part of Wellesley’s image. I read so many articles about the college’s sexual openness, but so many more unfair ones about its “highly charged erotic life”. I found testimonial after testimonial about its socially and sexually strange atmosphere – how hard it is to make male friends, how your presence at another college’s party is interpreted as wanting a hook up, how some Harvard guys once competed to see who could sleep with more Wellesley students in a year. I read these articles straight through, and felt a gut impulse to turn down Wellesley’s offer, even though I had fallen in love with the place.
In the end, I got drunk with my friends and flipped a coin hours before the deadline. I still think about this time when people ask me about ‘the all-women’s college experience’. What I often want to tell people – but don’t, out of some mix of pride and discomfort – is that a lot of my fear surrounding Wellesley was justified. It can be really hard: most of my friends thought about transferring, and some of them did. I often wonder about the normal college experiences I’m missing out on. I meet guys across Boston that specifically sleep with Wellesley students. Sometimes going to other colleges’ parties does make me feel weird.
But I also want to tell them: thank God for the unconventional. For the many winter nights we stay in and drink wine on tacky floral couches. For the women I’ve met that kindly let me tell them two years of secrets (now, non-secrets). For the openness.
Here is a final story. On the first night I got to Wellesley, the 600 in my class went into the college lake – as is tradition. It was around midnight, the moon was bright and full. This was no cleansing ritual; the lake was slimy and muddy, carrying strands of seaweed and clumps of gooey dirt. One by one, students leapt in and a mix of laughter and shrieking echoed. My roommate, who I had met only a few hours ago, held my hand. There were so many people I hadn’t met yet, and I could hardly discern any faces – only noise and movement and stench. We counted to three and held our breath. We jumped in.