Dr. Jo Allen, ’80, is the eighth president of Meredith College, a top-tier nationally ranked institution and one of the largest private colleges for women in the U.S. A national advocate for higher education, she is the first alumna to lead the 128-year-old institution.
In this blog post, Dr. Allen reflects on the ways she sees a women’s college education, and more specifically a Meredith education, enhance students’ confidence – a change that is evident as they cross the stage at Commencement.
Meredith College students, like students everywhere, run the gamut of personalities, passions, and preparation. For those at the top of their game, I am always inspired by their energy, creativity, sense of purpose, and outgoing natures.
But some Meredith students arrive a little less focused, self-assured, and directed. In fact, we open each year with a tradition that involves new students introducing themselves to me. And each year, I see students who cannot meet my eyes and extend a nervous hand for a weak handshake. This is Move-In Day, our students’ very first day of being a Meredith College student.
Four years later, shoulders back and heads held high, these same students cross a stage before 5,000 people, look me in the eye, express their gratitude, shake my hand warmly, accept their diplomas with pride, and proceed back to their seats. This is Commencement Day, our students’ very last day of being a Meredith College student.
Somewhere between these two bookend events, many of these women change. They may come to us shy, reluctant, and lonely – or outgoing, vibrant, and enthusiastic–but they meet new friends and learn to share personal stories, likes and dislikes, and support for whatever is happening in their lives. They meet their faculty who encourage them to develop, modify, and defend their opinions, perspectives, and experiences. They work with coaches, advisors, and staff leaders who direct their energies toward athletics, study abroad, research, internships, clubs and organizations, and other sites and situations in which to demonstrate their growing knowledge and confidence.
Most of all – they stretch. They read harder books, they travel to more exotic places, they meet more diverse populations, and they delve into more complex problems. They learn to question their assumptions, explore their options, and develop their strengths. They seek to be challenged and encouraged at every turn, coached through difficult situations, and given opportunities and feedback for growth.
This reinforcement, and for some even transformation, is what being in a community of women learners and leaders really means. Its impact and results are proven as the community collectively fosters confidence and dignity and, yes, spirit – qualities that are sometimes squelched elsewhere. The commitment to and impact of being surrounded by faculty, staff, and students who believe in a woman’s right to a superb education that includes stretching her mind and broadening her horizons permeates all that we do. It involves course corrections when she is missing the mark or asking too little of herself and congratulations when she meets and exceeds her goals.
It is the essence of “sisterhood,” with a shared sensibility for giving and receiving respect, for practicing the science of resilience, and for demonstrating the art of gratitude. It is embodied in all we do at Meredith College and culminates in the satisfaction of sending well-educated, principled, work-ready, and confident women into the future.
Going Strong, indeed.