“‘Tis We With Joyous Labor”: Why I Work at my Alma Mater
Laura Burgess is a fifth generation boarding school graduate. She holds a B.A. from St. Lawrence University and an M.A.L.S. degree with a focus on education policy from Dartmouth College. This is her sixth year as an admission professional. She serves her alma mater, Emma Willard School, as associate director of admissions.
Many of us working in independent schools choose to serve our alma mater. These are transformative places. No private institution exists without the generosity that accompanies gratefulness and nostalgia. Many families considering Emma Willard are impressed that an alumna thought highly enough of her Emma experience to continue working at the school. I am grateful, and occasionally I get nostalgic. But that doesn’t even begin to explain why I work here.
Our school has a longer history than any other of daring to believe in a simple truth: that girls matter as much as boys. Modern culture has not caught up with Mrs. Willard’s progressive vision. There is a line in our school’s alma mater which reads, “’Tis we with joyous labor that vision must fulfill.” This line reminds me how critical my job is to ensuring the perpetuation of Emma Willard’s vision.
We know that worldwide, girls face challenges, most of which we struggle to fathom from our limited Western perspective. Girls are sold and traded like commodities, many aren’t counted in the population, and their education rarely if ever comes first.[i] It is hard for many to imagine why this might be relevant to girls’ education here in America, especially at our most privileged institutions.
Even here in America, girls struggle to be considered as legitimate players. Many don’t see themselves that way and those who do place their social capital at risk. The Girls’ Leadership Institute conducted a study, asking high school girls to indicate how they thought a “Good Girl” was supposed to act. It was found to be a given that a Good Girl would be socially and academically successful, but mixed messages prevailed about how far she should carry her ambition. In 2009, noted author Rachel Simmons characterized the findings: “The Good Girl walked a treacherous line, balancing mixed messages…she was to be enthusiastic while being quiet; smart with no opinions; intelligent but a follower; popular but quiet. She would be something, but not too much.”[ii]
Women don’t occupy leadership positions for a very simple reason: they don’t seek them. Leadership is messy, and nowhere in our modern culture are women encouraged to be anything other than perfect and unruffled. Young women are inundated—subtly, yes, but still inundated—with the notion that being proud, standing out, taking charge, and “leaning in” are undesirable traits.
Even here in America, well-intentioned parents marginalize their own daughters. According to Google Analytics, parents of girls are disproportionately concerned with their daughter’s physical appearance and social prospects as compared with her intelligence. They are only half as likely as parents of boys to use search terms relating to intelligence.[iii] The subtlety, which comes in the form of parents who don’t realize they are marginalizing their daughters and the teachers who may not recognize when a girl is holding back because it is such a regular occurrence, is what makes it so very, very dangerous.
When I come home from admission travels, I watch for the intricate designs of Emma Willard’s Sage Tower coming into view over the approaching highway. Emma Willard School is a place for girls to rise above. That tower is a reminder that a girl’s education is the most important thing she will ever have. I’ve become more grateful to know that with each passing day, I can make that opportunity available for other young women. That is why I work here. And indeed, the labor is joyous.
[i] WuDunn, Sheryl. “Our Century’s Greatest Injustice.” TEDGlobal. July 2010. Web. Accessed 15 February, 2014.
[ii] Simmons, Rachel. The Curse of the Good Girl. New York: Penguin Press, 2009.
[iii] Stephens-Davidowitz, Seth. “Google, Tell Me, Is My Son a Genius?” New York Times 18 January, 2014: Web. Accessed 15 February, 2014.