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Ready for Right Now: Lessons from a Women’s College

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Being educated among women, WMC intern Anna Ziering writes, shaped her understanding of leadership.

A quotation from Madeline Albright’s commencement address at Wellesley hangs on my bulletin board: “Real leadership comes from realizing… that the time has come to move beyond preparing to doing.” A compulsive over-preparer, I pinned it up the moment I stumbled upon it in a recent article on women’s colleges.

As a third-wave woman, I was raised with the “you can do anything” mantra that’s become so familiar to so many of us. Author? Sure! First female president? Of course! Professional mom? Go for it! Anything. Do anything. And I will, I tell myself. Next year. When I’ve prepared a little more.

I, like so many of my friends and peers, am a perfectionist. In high school, I spent 18 hours studying for my first final exam. I sat at my desk for an entire weekend, memorizing details about australopithecines, emerging just long enough to eat a few meals and tell my mother that no, I was absolutely not studying too much, that this test was going to be hard.

I was, of course, completely over-prepared.

Four years later, I came to Barnard College, joined a student group called Everyone Allied Against Homophobia, and spent my first year sitting in meetings eating M&M cookies, not volunteering for anything because I was afraid I would mess up. The seniors know what they’re doing, I reasoned. I’ll volunteer sophomore year.

Sophomore year, it was getting rude to keep eating the cookies without doing any work. So even though I still didn’t know what I was doing, I started getting more involved. Not surprisingly, I learned far more in the game than on the sidelines. As my confidence started to grow, I began participating with a vengeance. I’m now a representative for Student Government, a board member for EAAH, taking five classes, writing a thesis, interning nine hours a week at the Women’s Media Center, and working for six in the Barnard Admissions Office. I’m hardly unusual, though—in fact, I sleep a lot more than some of my friends.

As an Interviewer for the Admissions Office, I frequently tell the story of why I decided to attend Barnard: I went to a student panel, and the five students, all seniors, were confident, mature, capable, and accomplished—exactly what I wanted to be when I graduated. So I decided to come to Barnard to become like them.

Barnard, in case you don’t know, is a women’s college. Some students come feeling gung-ho about the Seven Sisters. Some come relieved that Columbia sits right across the street. Some, like me, come not caring much either way, assuming there are some benefits to women’s colleges but not entirely sure what they are or whether they’ll apply to us. I’ve never been afraid of speaking up in class and I don’t get distracted by boys. A women’s college wouldn’t hurt me, I thought, but wouldn’t do much for me either.

But as I tell the students I meet, women’s colleges work in much more subtle ways. Barnard doesn’t empower you by letting you wear sweatpants—although you can. It doesn’t improve your schoolwork by removing male distractions—if you’re interested in men, Columbia students are all over campus. And the benefits aren’t all in the woman-focused student services, although I don’t know how many co-ed schools have peer health offices with massage chairs and chocolate.

The fact that Barnard is a women’s college is only obvious to me when I leave campus. It’s when I realize that my mental blueprint of the world doesn’t match up to what’s out there—and that I like my version better. I like being at a school where the percentage of female professors is twice the national average. I like having a female president and female deans who take the all-female student government seriously. But I only notice these things when I step off campus and realize that I have an absolute confidence in women’s leadership that few people seem to have. And I have that confidence because I’ve seen these women in action.

More than that—and this is the best part of Barnard—I’ve gained confidence in myself as a leader. I still like to be prepared, but it’s not for some distant future—it’s for my board meeting in fifteen minutes or my class tomorrow or my internship in a few days. It’s for what I am doing, as well as what I might do. At Barnard, my leadership is valued because it’s valuable, and it’s possible because I’m capable. Barnard gave me the space to learn both of those things.

I’m going to be one of those seniors on a panel next week. I’ll seem confident, mature, capable, and accomplished. But just like when I sat in the audience, like so many high school and college seniors everywhere, I still have no idea what I’m doing next year. The difference is that this time I know I can do it.

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