The Mills College I entered in the fall of 2017 was a far different institution that the one I visited as a teenager. For one, the student body is more diverse. The process of integration began in the late sixties and seventies. Today, the campus admits more young women of color and from a wider range of socio-economic groups than at any other time in its history. And, there’s a significant population of older women like myself. (We even have our own club.) Once, a haven for daughters of elite, it has long and justly earned a reputation for turning out women who are politically engaged. Congresswoman Barbara Lee, class of ’73, is a proud alumna who attended Mills as a single mother.
What Mills does not welcome is undergraduate men. The college’s board of directors tried to admit men in 1992, inciting a spirited student protest that closed the campus for more than a week and forcing the board to reverse its decision. Mills would remain a women’s college, and as a women’s college it would continue to confront the financial difficulties these institutions face in an increasingly competitive landscape.
About a year ago, Mills’ board declared a state of financial emergency, granting its new president Elizabeth Hillman broad powers to make changes designed to make the college more financial stable. Mills is in a period of great change. So am I. I’ll chronicle the changes this nearly 150-year-old institution, which was, in the beginning, a kind of finishing school for the wealthy daughters of the California Gold Rush era. At the same time, I’ll write about my own late-in-life transition from working journalist and freelance writer to full-time student.
I hope to write about other women moving toward a new future. I realize that my journey began from a place of privilege; I had the luxury of choosing my path and the resources to make that choice possible. Others are not so lucky: They are forced into change by loss. I hope to tell their stories, too, which are examples of grit and grace under difficult circumstances.
As I write this blog post, Mills is on a former financial footing. The process of getting there was exceedingly painful, especially to the Mills faculty. Departmental budgets were slashed, academic programs were shuttered, and beloved faculty let go. Just in the last month, I received an email from Beth Hillman, asking me (as well as other alumna) to help the administration to determine what makes Mills distinctive today. The eventual goal is to communicate those qualities to potential students.
The worst of the bad news may be over. Now comes the hard work of appealing to young women who have a wide range of options. Top high school students across the country are lured with attractive financial incentives that can make the cost of a college education, while still expensive, less onerous. Mills must give them a reason to attend.