I recently completed coursework for my Ph.D. in Educational Administration and was inspired for this post by the pilot study I completed for a class. To give you a brief synopsis of the pilot study and topic, my research examines how first-year college women understand their casual sex experiences. I specifically want to understand how these women make meaning of their encounters and use feminist theory as an overarching theoretical framework. In addition, women’s cognitive development (the development of women’s voice) influences my analysis and how I understand my participant’s narratives. Sounds so simple, right?
I can’t help but think about the ways in which women develop their voice on a college campus. I interact with some of the most amazing females and I am honored to call them my colleagues, peers, and mentees. I often reflect on my experiences as an undergraduate and wish I could have the knowledge I have now. I think there is great importance in understanding how college women make meaning, specifically to understand how they construct reality and their voice in male dominated environments.
When first-year women come to college, their lives are completely derived from familial experiences, media influence, and peer interactions. Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, and Tarule, (1986) examine how women’s voice develops through adolescence to adulthood in the book Women’s Ways of Knowing. Prior to college and even in the first and second year, women ground experiences in received knowledge, or in other words, women create their own meaning and dialogue of experiences from other individuals or entities in their lives. During adolescence, many stereotypes have not been challenged, many oppressive acts have not been tested, and societal influence creates a strong reality for many people.
Think about your own development and how you may have constructed meaning of experiences prior to your higher education experience. For example, I always understood sexual assault as something that women were responsible in changing by the way they behaved. My post-secondary education helped change and transform this societal representation of victim blaming and shaming. Women’s studies classes increased my awareness of including men in sexual assault conversations and how they can change their language and behaviors. My education has forever changed me and allowed me to label my experiences and work as an advocate to help others. I say this because if I call myself a feminist or activist, I have an obligation to educate and act as an ally for others.
As I have written how women develop voice in terms of social experiences, I transfer this concept to their academic and personal experiences as well. As a student affairs professional, educator, and mentor, I find that if I can understand how women “think”, it is easier to educate and increase their confidence in their collegiate experiences. I challenge you to think about the women you supervise, teach, or work with at your institutions. Have you thought about how you talk to them? Have you thought about how they understand their experiences and how they derive meaning? Do you feel like they reflect on their experiences in the most effective way?
I find self-fulfillment in working with students and seeing the ways they grow and develop over a semester and each year. To be responsible and ethical practitioners, I believe we must ground our work in theory and help students to use their full potential. What I may have not known as a first-year female or what I was unable to label in my experience, I know how to construct meaning of now. I understand the saying “if I only knew what I know now” because I recall my silence as an adolescent female and the pain it caused me. I hope to supply college females with the resources necessary to become cognizant of women’s issues earlier than I was in order to make better meaning and informed choices in their lives. As a professional, do you agree? What role do you see yourself in when working with female college students?
I offer you some suggestions in maximizing the female college student experience in many capacities (i.e. teaching, supervising, mentoring, or just acting as an ally).
Ways to enhance work with first year college women:
1. Point out strengths through positive reinforcement. Students need to hear what they are good at; it’s how they understand their skill strengths and competencies in a particular field.
2. Give them voice in decision-making. Let women be involved in task management, problem-solving, and creation of projects. The more you elicit their ideas and feedback, the more they develop stronger opinions and experiences.
3. Emphasize the importance of the mentor relationship. No one said that women can only learn from women. My first mentor was a male and he helped to develop my skills and find passion in my work. Women can find confidence when they have a strong mentor to process and reflect their experiences.
4. Create opportunities for reflection on past experiences. College is a new experience with new knowledge and solidification of new values and beliefs. Helping women understand and connect their education to their prior experience creates stronger identity development.
5. Envision college women as our future. The college female you work with is the face of our future and you could potentially impact her life in a wonderful way. Get involved in listening to her goals and plans. Be supportive and check-in with her often.
6. Stress the importance of self-care. Help college women to understand that their needs should be put first, because if you don’t take care of yourself, no one will do it for you. Women have many obligations and if you want to be Wonder Woman, make sure you are taking care of yourself in the process.
7. Don’t be afraid to say the F-word. If you identify as a Feminist, say it, show it, and discuss what it means to you with other women. Creating a larger network of women who identify as Feminists only builds a larger network for our future.
Belenky, M.F, Clinchy, B.M., Goldberger, J.R. and Tarule, J.M. (1986). Women’s Ways of
Knowing. Basic Books: New York, NY.