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Supporting Self-Confidence: Improving the Female Experience at Boston College

In 2012, the Office of Institutional Research, Planning & Assessment (IRPA) at Boston College released a study stating that women at the University had been shown to experience a decrease in academic self-confidence over the course of their four years there. The data informing the study was gathered from freshman entrance and senior exit surveys administered to the Class of 2011, and suggested that while the female students graduated with average higher GPAs than their male classmates, their self-confidence had decreased over the course of their college careers while the males’ had increased.

Understandably, this report—presented by Kelli Armstrong, VP of IRPA at Boston College, to a faculty forum in April 2012—sparked significant concern among administrators and faculty at the University, and garnered media attention from USA Today, The Daily Beast, The Daily Mail, and New York magazine, among others. The pressing question for educators at the school became: What are the underlying causes of this phenomenon, and how do we fix it as quickly as possible?

To gain a better understanding of the alarming results of the study, an ad hoc committee of administrators and faculty members immediately set out to conduct focus groups of female students that would allow them to gain qualitative insights into the experience of women at Boston College. Soon after beginning this inquiry, the researchers found that the primary cause of the drop in female students’ self-esteem was overwhelmingly “the culture,” over and above academic factors.

As detailed in a 2013 article in The Heights, Boston College’s student newspaper, the cultural elements that the focus group respondents identified as detrimental to their self-confidence included the pressure to look and dress a certain way (also involving the issue of body image), the hookup culture, the brutal housing lottery system, negative connotations of the word “feminism,” and the attempt to procure a job pending graduation (which proved especially worrisome for students who were Arts & Sciences majors).

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Boston College’s Women’s Center inspires visitors with empowering decor.

“We learned that the problematic aspects of the BC culture outside of the classroom are internalized by female students and affect their sense of themselves inside of it,” said Katie Dalton, Director of the Women’s Center at Boston College and one of the conductors of the focus groups. “This issue affects all students, male and female, but it is particularly more difficult for women for a variety of reasons—including the perceived need to appear effortlessly perfect in all areas of their lives.”

One question that arises in considering this problem of decreasing female self-confidence is whether or not it is present at other similar colleges and universities, or if the phenomenon is BC-specific. Because the data presented in the study is longitudinal, Boston College’s IRPA has been able to compare its own findings to those of other schools that have instituted the same survey to students—whether they be Catholic or Jesuit, members of the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), etc. While analysis has shown that the trend is definitely present on a national level, it’s markedly elevated at BC.

“This really raises red flags, because our institution is trying to graduate men and women for others,” said Dalton. “We need to be conscious of everyone’s lived experience here and how it has impacted them by the time they leave and head out into the world.”

With this knowledge, the committee focusing on the issue conceptualized a set of recommendations as to what could be done to combat it and improve the experience of BC women. Having determined that a major factor contributing to the problem was the lack of mentorship opportunities available for women, the crux of the proposed solutions was the facilitation of close, personal relationships among students and between students and faculty.

“Mentoring plays a big role in self-confidence, because it allows you to have conversations about what your identity is and/or should be, rather than just internalizing what you are hearing from the dominant cultural narrative,” said Dalton. “There just isn’t a resource that offers every single student at BC a personal mentoring relationship, especially for students in the College of Arts & Sciences.”

While students in the smaller colleges at the University—the Connell School of Nursing, Lynch School of Education, and Carroll School of Management—are provided many school-specific mentoring opportunities and chances for interaction with faculty, those in the College of Arts & Sciences are not often afforded the same individualized attention. The issue is especially pressing for those in the middle academic ranks of their class: While high achieving honors students enjoy smaller class sizes and increased faculty engagement, and while those who are struggling academically are provided personalized resources for support, the average student tends to fall by the wayside.

In response, a host of solutions have been implemented to fill the void of mentorship for female students over the course of the past five years since the study was initially released. One of the major players in addressing the issue on campus has been the Women’s Center, which has worked with the Center for Student Formation (CSF) to ensure that there are mentoring programs for women at crucial moments of their journey through Boston College.

As freshmen, BC women have the opportunity to participate in the Ascend program through CSF, which groups students together with upperclass women mentors. (The description on the program’s website invites freshmen to “talk about the shared experience of being women at BC.”) For sophomores, there is a nearly identical program offered by the Women’s Center called Thrive, and seniors have the opportunity to participate in Rise, which “matches small groups of senior class women with female faculty and staff members to challenge perceived cultural and social norms at BC that affect women’s sense of self.”

Anna Scheeler, a sophomore in BC’s Morrissey College of Arts & Sciences, spoke positively of her experience with the Thrive program. “I previously had no idea about the results of the [2012] study, but I definitely see how Thrive is helpful in boosting women’s self-confidence,” she said. “I’ve found that it really helps me to relate to other BC women and realize that not everyone here is really as perfect as they seem to be. Plus, I feel supported by my relationships with my [senior] mentors.”

Despite the successes of said programming, Dalton notes that there have been some setbacks and learning curves to overcome in implementing these mentoring solutions. “Duo was a one-on-one mentorship program [through the Women’s Center] pairing underclass women with seniors, but we found that one third of the groups were really successful, another third met relatively frequently, and the rest barely met at all,” she said. “It’s important that we impose structure on these programs in order for them to be effective.”

The Office of Residential Life at BC has also played a large role in implementing female-specific programming on campus. Samantha Gordon is a Resident Director for a set of freshman residence halls, one of them being an all-female hall. “I learned about the study in one of my graduate classes in the Lynch School [of Education], and we’ve been implementing programming in direct response to it,” she said. “We host themed hall-wide dinners once per month, and bring in panels of female student leaders, healthy female friend groups, faculty, staff from the Office of Health Prevention, etc. to speak. We also hold regular body image workshops, and everyone is required to attend an overnight retreat during fall semester.”

In general, there has been a push by the University to spread awareness among faculty and staff of the struggles that female students at BC face. The Center for Teaching Excellence has been educating instructors on how to be more conscious of the study results within the classroom and to help combat low self-confidence among women. Faculty members have also been provided with restaurant gift cards through the “Take a Student to Lunch” program, which encouraged professors to create personal relationships with all students, regardless of gender.

At the same time, there are some limitations associated with the responses that have been implemented thus far. “The ongoing university-wide committee that was proposed in the initial set of recommendations has not come to fruition,” said Dalton. “Plus, the women that choose to participate in the mentorship programs that have become available are self-selecting to be in them, which indicates that they might not even need them as much as other students who are flying under the radar.”

Gordon expressed her own reservations concerning the programming that she and the rest of Residential Life have been implementing. “We could definitely be doing more in the way of small talking groups and bringing representatives from the many women-centric groups on campus to be a resource to these freshman girls,” she said. And while she’s received positive feedback from the girls who take advantage of her programming, there has been a bit of an attendance issue at the events. “Students just seem to be scared by the word feminism. There’s a lot of desire to fit in here and not cause problems or drama… girls are expected to act a certain way, be a certain way, and that includes strict gender roles,” she said.

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Scheeler is a sophomore political science major at Boston College and a participant in the Women’s Center’s “Thrive” program.

Scheeler also noted the shortcomings of the new mentorship and programming initiatives in addressing all parts of the self-confidence equation. “I think that besides addressing the need for female empowerment on campus, BC needs to address the pervasive hypermasculinity in the campus environment,” she said. “It definitely perpetuates the hookup culture, women’s negative self-image, and pushback against feminism.”

Now that the University has taken action attempting to bolster females’ self-confidence over the course of their four years at Boston College, there is a need to measure how effective these responses have been in achieving their goal. For individual programs such as those offered by the Women’s Center, administrators have begun conducting surveys and focus groups of students before and after their participation to gauge the direct effects on self-confidence.

However, there is a big limitation in this method of measurement in the form of answering bias. “If these women realize that they are supposed to have higher self-esteem after being in a program, they might skew their responses the represent that outcome,” said Dalton.

This year, the Class of 2017 will be the first to be surveyed using the same criteria as the Class of 2011, whose data informed the distressing study released in 2012. A cohort of graduating senior women who received a specific freshman entrance survey will also receive a specific senior exit survey; the results of the two will be compared to determine how their self-confidence has changed since their first year on campus. Only time will tell whether history will repeat itself in the outcome, or if the solutions implemented since 2011 will be shown to have ameliorated the female experience at BC.

“What I’m wondering is if women will report lower self-esteem because they know of the original study, in a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy, or if they will resent it and report that they’ve gained self-confidence so as not to be part of the statistic,” mused Dalton. “There’s always more to be done, but we’ve done a lot [since that first study was released]. I really hope we’ve succeeded in elevating the opinions and experiences of women at this university.”

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