Unequalled Opportunities by Guy Nicholls

Once wonders of a man’s world, American Seven Sisters colleges have remained true to their ideals of stimulating the female mind. Over the years, high-flying graduates have done their alma mater proud, particularly in Hong Kong where they have joined forces to form the only Seven Sisters association in existence. Guy Nicholls plugs into this unique old girls’ network.

Some years ago in strife-torn Africa, in a bar in a fly-blown mining town, an inebriated Greek started throwing knives at the wall above my head, challenging all-comers to better his accuracy with the lethal missiles. I declined, but a newly found American friend took up the gauntlet – and cleaned the Greek out with a series of pin-point throws. Later, as we sat watching the sun rise over the jungle and slowly turn the forest from black to purple to green, I asked him where on earth he had learned to throw a knife like that. “Harvard,” was his reply, his eyes not shifting from the horizon. He did not go on to say that it was a man’s world, that he could go anywhere and do anything, although at the time I half expected him to.

            A few years later, on the other side of the world and in another sort of jungle where survival of the fittest is also the modus vivendi, I find myself thinking of that sunrise in Africa as I sit opposite a dynamic woman clad in a green, purple and red fashion statement, dripping gold and charm as easily as she breathes the air around her. Christine Mar is a successful woman who runs her own Hong Kong-based communications company. She has a hint of educated confidence, but no arrogance, no condescension. If she ever needed to throw a knife, she would simply look daggers instead.

            Mar is the local chairwoman of the Seven Sisters Alumni Association of Hong Kong, a unique club of graduates from the magnificent seven women-only liberal arts colleges of the United States. The Seven Sisters schools are situated on the eastern seaboard, in an area stretching from Massachusetts to Pennsylvania. Just mentioning their names is enough to send shivers down the spine of an ardent male chauvinist. To say that Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, Radcliffe, Smith, Wellesley and Vassar set women apart from men is an understatement. The colleges and their output of female students are more than a match for the academic boys of the Ivy League schools.

            “These seven ladies’ colleges were more or less formed at the same time, at the end of the 19thcentury,” says Mar, a graduate of Barnard College. “There was already a well-established men’s education system in place in those days and the women, some of whom were extremely able, wanted to be educated as well.”

            Thus, as few pioneering spirits, including some of the less blinkered members of male academia, decided to set up an equivalent educational structure which would be as strong as the men’s Ivy League. The aim was to construct a versatile system of education for young women, which would be based on a solid academic foundation rather than the scoffing male presumption that it would cater for tapestry-weaving flower-arrangers. It worked. The Seven Sisters colleges rapidly garnered a reputation for academic excellence. In which the stimulation of women’s minds was paramount.

            Five of the seven colleges have remained strictly for women only. Radcliffe and Vassar have recently become co-educational schools, but the remaining five are still known as ‘The Seven’. As the Ivy League schools accept women these days, it seems as if the discrimination equation has been reversed. Now it is the Seven Sisters which keep men out.

            “Well, yes and no,” says Mar. “While we don’t have any male applicants to Barnard, we are right across the street from Columbia University and have cross-registration and academic programmes with them. But yes, we are still trying to maintain our own identity.” There are, needless to say, the usual jokes about men attempting to be admitted, invariably in the early hours of the morning, and losing fingers in slammed windows, but it seems that nearly all such stories originate from the boys themselves.

            “A Seven Sisters college is for the young woman who is not quite ready for the huge university campus, who likes a little place to get her feet firmly on the ground and then, maybe, venture out later,” explains Mar. “Because each college, which averages only 2,000 students, is affiliated with a larger university complex, you can stay on, say, the Barnard side of the campus to feel secure, and then when you’re ready, go across the street to Columbia. Single-sex education is not for everyone, but for some it’s the right thing,” she concludes.

            The schools are exclusive for another reason – their high fees. Last year, tuition at Barnard cost US$14,890, and room and board US$6,454. Its sister colleges feature a similar fee scale, which is comparative to those of the Ivy League schools. Although financial aid programmes are available, overseas students do not normally qualify for grants.

            Students and their families consider the high fees to be money well spent. At Barnard, for example, illustrious alumni span every field of human endeavour. In each of the past six decades, the college has led the field in the number of women who go on to earn doctorates in the arts and sciences. Similarly, an unusually high percentage of American women physicians graduated from Barnard. Famous alumni include Zora Neale Hurston, Margaret Mead, Dr Jacqueline Kapelman Barton, Mary Gordon and Erica Jong.

            The Seven Sisters Alumni Association is unique to Hong Kong. Although the college clubs cooperate on various matters, there is no similar umbrella organisation in the US. The local association was started by Mar in 1985. “I got on the phone to the various colleges and suggested forming such an organisation,” she explains. “At the time, each college club in Hong Kong had only 10 or 12 – or in some cases as few as five – members. What can you do with club that has only five members?”

            Following Mar’s initiative, local alumni of the seven colleges began their collective association. From 25 members in 1985, the Seven Sisters Alumni Association has grown to encompass more than 80 women. “The Seven Sisters in Hong Kong aims to make the Hong Kong high-school community aware of our colleges,” says Mar. “We offer something in single sex education that may appeal to some of these students. Obviously, we are not trying to say that everyone should go to them, but we really do offer, I think, the best of both worlds.

            “There is a lot to be said for a small educational setting, particularly for Hong Kong students, who are very motivated and bright, but quite sheltered and shy. I think they would feel a bit lost in a large university setting. The Seven Sisters is a great option for girls who might be uncomfortable in a large university.”

            Getting the message across to the shy but brilliant Hong Kong female student is achieved through receptions and lectures, at which ‘been-there done-that’ recent graduates share their experiences, introduce the concept of a liberal arts education and explain the benefits of a single-sex education.

            The alumni also assemble for their own functions, at which women from different walks of life meet and confer, assist each other, and generally have a good time, replete in the knowledge that all have had the same enriching experience of attending one of the ‘Sister’. New arrivals to the territory from the US and fresh graduates can plug into the network to receive advice and support. With such high-profile members as author and educator Betty Wei, who attended Bryn Mawr, Professor Shih Hsiao Yen, a graduate of Wellesley, and Barnard graduates Lucille Vessa, who works in the antiques business, and Monica Wong, who is in private banking, the association has considerable prestige.

            “The colleges have amazingly diverse a student bodies,” says Mar. Such diversity, it seems, is reflected in the fact that local alumni cover a variety of professions, from academics, authors and art historians to stockbrokers and high-flying businesswomen. “The strength of a liberal art education is that it teaches you a set of skills that you can apply to any discipline,” she adds.

            While some of the colleges within the association operate scholarship foundations to aid local applicants, the Seven Sisters umbrella is not involved in causes either of an academic or a compassionate nature. “We don’t do charity work,” says Mar. “We don’t do fund-raising. There are already so many charity organisations. Once you start getting involved with charity, it puts a whole new slant on things.”

            It is left to the individual colleges to raise funds for scholarships which could enable young Hong Kong women to study in the US. The 30 members of the Alumni of Wellesley College – the largest alumni representation in the territory of any of the Seven Sisters – spend much of their time and energy working on raising the substantial amount needed to put one student from Hong Kong through a four-year course at Wellesley. They are led in their quest by fund-raiser par excellence, Nellie Fung, who is well known for her untiring voluntary work. A co-founder of the Chinese International School, Fun was encouraged by her parents to attend Wellesley.

            “Wellesley has always been very popular with Chinese students, going back to the days when Wellesley had a sister relationship with a college in China,” says Fung. “Then, of course, Madam Chiang Kai-shek established a foundation at the college, and it was one of the first colleges to start a Chinese-language department.

            “It is a highly competitive women’s college. The five sisters have chosen to remain women’s colleges because they feel that they are providing a special environment and addressing the specific needs of women in education. Statistically, it has been found that women who go women’s colleges do extremely well at graduate school. They are a lot more focused and competitive.

            “I’m not saying that attending a co-educational college is distracting. The way our president puts it is that a woman who goes to a women’s college does not have equal opportunity but every opportunity. You get women who have graduated from women’s colleges who are not at all intimidated by men, who have learned to feel that they can do anything.”

            Fung feels that the most profitable thing she got from her years at Wellesley – apart of course, from her degree – was the self-confidence to tackle life and all it throws at you. “You look at challenges and opportunities and you’re willing to take them on,” she says, citing the Chinese International School project. “We identified a need in Hong Kong for this kind of school, and we just got on with it and built it. We established a charitable foundation, and it soon developed its own momentum. What I got in my background and education helped me to make a go of this project.”

            A Wellesley graduate from the class of ’72, Mee-Seen Loong, attended college during a very turbulent period in the recent history of both America and the women’s movement. “The college scene changed overnight,” she recalls. “One day it was all gracious living and dressing for dinner, and the next day it was all banned and we could dress how we liked. It was a very traumatic period, a period of great change. The undercurrent of feminism, of individualism, of anti-materialism – all those things that sound so willy now – was so strong. Of course, if you trace the people who were there then, you will find that they are now all bankers and the like!”

            Loong feels that the academic career of a shy young woman can truly blossom in the closeted environment of a single-sex college. “They really coddled us,” she says of Wellesley. “I was immediately assigned an older woman graduate to take care of me. They were very good that way.”

            When she was a student, Loong had dreams of being a journalist. Wellesley, however, was determined that she received a sound and broad liberal arts education. One of the subjects she had to take was art history. “I had never even heard of the discipline,” she recalls. “It simply wasn’t in my educational vocabulary. At school in Hong Kong, we had been told we had to become lawyers or doctors. But with a background in liberal arts, you can turn your hand to anything.” Today Loong is managing director of Sotheby’s Hong Kong.

            The Seven Sisters association also helps American women who are new to Hong Kong. Loong says: “In the US, the network of old girls is very strong. I get many calls at work from students who have graduated – in such a situation there is often a certain bias towards graduates from one’s own college. People call to find out who in Hong Kong can help them. My education has created remarkable friends.”

            Like Mar and Fung, Loong believes a Seven Sisters education gave her extraordinary confidence. “Even though you were at first unaware of it, it was almost pressed upon you that you were part of a group of girls who were among the brightest in the country. It made you more ambitious and finally more confident. I found that relationships were strong because they were devoid of any competition. You were with intellectual equals, and there wasn’t the hassle of fighting over men friends, of having to try and compete for male attention.

            Barbara Reeve, who is an archaeological and ethnographic conservator by profession, graduated from Bryn Mawr in 1976. Her teachers used to say that a student who would not fully appreciate her Bryn Mawr education until she had left. “Because you become accustomed to working in an environment where everyone is doing their best you become accustomed to doing your best all the time,” she explains. “You become accustomed to viewing yourself not necessarily as a woman, but as a person; a person who sees something she wants to do – and goes and does it.”

            While some men would dismiss the Seven Sisters as a breeding ground for feminism. Reeve rejects such generalisations. “It depends on how you define feminism. There are probably as many types of feminism at Bryn Mawr as they are students,” she says. “Some people think that you went to Bryn Mawr, it means that you are completely tied up in books and have no interest in men or anything outside a library. They think that you are a radical feminist. But one only has to cope with that reaction very occasionally. I knew only a couple of women who were tunnel visioned, going for their doctorate to the exclusion of life.

“Cambridge University has more eccentrics per square inch than I have seen anywhere else in the world. But people don’t say that about Cambridge men. Women present a more common target than men do. There is an undercurrent in some people’s minds that an educated woman is strange, that what women reallywant if to have babies.”

            As Reeve points out, the grand goal of the Seven Sisters is “simply to encourage women to be the best people they can be. That’s all.” Given such sentiments, perhaps the vision of a man’s world can finally be put to rest.

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