When I was in high school, I was a girl who was good at math. I soared through AP calculus, I scored higher on the math section than the verbal section of the SAT, and I was even on the math team (although not the only female, proudly).
When I met with my high school guidance counselor to talk about college, she said: “You’re a girl who is good at math. You need to go to engineering school.” She handed me the application for the best engineering university in the state. In fact, it was the only application she was willing to give me.
“I’m scared of that. I want to be a writer,” I told her. As a first-generation college-bound student, the idea of huge classrooms that were rumored to “weed out” anyone not good enough was intimidating despite my abilities and confidence. She wouldn’t have it. And because in 1988, all college applications were on paper (I used a typewriter to complete mine), they were a little tougher to come by than today when you can simply go online. I asked for the application to my aspirational journalism school. No go. My high school classmates will attest that this lady thought she always acted in our best interest — and that she was stubborn.
So I attended a local college fair and walked straight up to the table of an expensive private college known for creative writing. I completed their application and was accepted Early Decision. Although I transferred the next year, I still completed my liberal arts education.
Now, I love what I do, but what if my counselor had encouraged me to seek out a school where I could have thrived in a small classroom of other women pursuing engineering? Where I wouldn’t have had to worry about competing with 500 other students in a huge classroom? I believe that a major contributor to our lack of women in STEM is the fact that they start out all wrong. A recent study by Colorado State University reported by the Denver Business Journal revealed that “women are more likely than men to get discouraged by a particular math class and give up on their quest for a degree preparing them for a career in science, technology or engineering.” They say fueling a female’s confidence is key.
Sweet Briar College is one of only two women’s colleges in the United States with an ABET-accredited engineering program. In classrooms of eight students (on average), faculty are invested in knowing exactly how each student learns best. There are no huge introductory classes taught by graduate students or teaching assistants. Additionally, women who study at women’s colleges develop higher levels of self-esteem than other achieving women at coed institutions, according to the Women’s College Coalition.
If more “girls who are good at math” find the right place to study from the beginning, our society will have more women in STEM. If I had known that 30 years ago, I might have been an engineer.
Melissa Farmer Richards is vice president for communications and enrollment management at Sweet Briar College. She previously served as vice president for communications and acting executive officer for admissions and financial aid at St. Lawrence University, and assistant vice president for marketing and publications at Virginia Tech. She holds a master of public administration from Virginia Tech and a Bachelor of Arts in rhetoric and communication studies from the University of Virginia.