Volume 6: Issue 4

At the Center and Not the Margins: Preparing Free Thinking Women for Leadership in the New Millennium at a Historically Black College for Women

What does it mean to be part of an institution that is driven by a very specific mission, such as a historically Black college for women? In this essay, Dr. Sherry Turner, chief student affairs officer at Spelman College, shares some of her experiences and highlights her institution’s efforts “to create an academically challenging and engaging experience, inside and outside the classroom that reflects our institutional mission and purpose and prepares diverse women for leadership in the new millennium.”

To provide readers with additional perspectives about this topic, three other ACPA members have also articulated lessons they have learned by working at women’s colleges and HBCUs.

Founded in 1881, by and for women, Spelman epitomizes the best that women’s colleges can provide. Here, women are valued, their abilities recognized, their individuality affirmed and their creativity nurtured. It is within these gates where lifelong learning is fostered and lifetime friendships are forged. It is here that the Spelman sisterhood is nurture (Guy-Sheftall, 2006, p.3).

There are approximately 60 women’s colleges and 105 historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in the United States.  Of those institutions, two stand out for their unique history and mission. Bennett College for Women, founded in 1873, and Spelman College, founded in 1881, are the nation’s only two historically Black colleges for women. For over 125 years, both institutions – though incredibly diverse with respect to ethnicity, culture, social class, sexual orientation, religion, ability, and age -- have devoted themselves to the mission of educating women of African descent.

Bennett College, now situated on land purchased by freed slaves, had its beginnings in the basement of Warnersville Methodist Episcopal Church in Greensboro, NC. Initially coeducational, Bennett became a college for women 53 years after its founding (www.bennett.edu/history). 

Spelman College had its initial roots in the basement of Friendship Baptist Church in Atlanta as a seminary for Black women and girls. The school, originally named the Atlanta Baptist Female Seminary opened its doors with 11 students. Among the first students were one girl and 10 women, some of whom were former slaves. The school’s founders, Sophia B. Packard and Harriett E. Giles, envisioned that their institution would be devoted to educating newly freed women, who would, in turn, educate future generations of women.

While there were other institutions throughout the 1800s that were established as colleges for Black women, Spelman College is the sole institution that was both founded for the purpose of educating Black women and that has remained true to its mission. Other colleges such as Barber-Scotia College in Concord, NC, Mary Holmes College in West Point, MS, and Hartshorn Memorial College in Richmond, VA were established as colleges for Black females, but either became coeducational institutions or closed their doors.

What does it mean to be part of an institution that occupies such a unique place within the context of U.S. higher education? In this essay, I share some of my experiences as the chief student affairs officer at Spelman College and highlight some of our efforts to create an academically challenging and engaging experience, inside and outside the classroom that reflects our institutional mission and purpose and prepares diverse women for leadership in the new millennium.

Throughout its history, Spelman has nurtured “free thinking women” by encouraging freedom of thought and expression and by supporting thinking that is not bound by artificial social and political barriers.  A highly selective liberal arts college, Spelman’s mission is clear:

“An outstanding historically Black college for women, Spelman promotes academic excellence in the liberal arts, and develops the intellectual, ethical, and leadership potential of its students. Spelman seeks to empower the total person who appreciates the many cultures of the world and commits to positive social change.”

A Commitment to Women’s Education…

My commitment to women’s education is firm. Though not a graduate of a women’s college, I have spent the majority of my professional career at two highly selective women’s colleges—14 years at Mount Holyoke College and seven years at Spelman College. My research and scholarship have explored various factors that contribute to women’s educational attainment and success. Through my varied professional experiences -- professor, academic dean, ombudsperson, presidential assistant, and vice president for student affairs, I have been deeply committed to fostering women's liberal arts education and to embracing their legacy of educating and advancing women.

One of my favorite stories is drawn from Spelman’s early history. Its founders, Sophia B. Packard and Harriett E. Giles, were asked to consider a merger between the Atlanta Baptist Female Seminary and its male counterpart, the Atlanta Baptist Seminary (which later became Morehouse College). They rejected the proposal on the basis that in co-educational schools, courses were designed primarily for men, and that training for women was largely ignored. They firmly believed women’s educational needs “could best be served if removed from the distractions caused by constant contact and interaction with men” (Office of Alumnae Affairs, 2006, p.8).

One need only examine data from the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) or studies cited by the Women’s College Coalition to understand the continuing relevance of Spelman’s founders’ foresight.  In comparison to their peers who attend coeducational schools, women who attend women’s colleges report higher levels of engagement, greater academic challenge, participation in more higher-order thinking activities, greater student-faculty interaction,  more active and collaborative learning and greater participation in activities that integrate curricular and co-curricular experiences. Previous studies have shown that women at single-sex institutions benefit from the availability of more female mentors and role-models among faculty and top administrators, from greater opportunities for and participation in student leadership, and from higher percentages of female students enrolled in traditionally-male disciplines of math, science and engineering (http://www.womenscolleges.org). Spelman is certainly no exception in providing a context conducive to women’s exceptional achievement.

Rooted in the Historical Experiences of Women of African Descent

Both women’s colleges and HBCUs boast of their distinguished legacies of producing educated citizens.1 Spelman, like its HBCU counterparts and its women’s college counterparts can boast of its success as a leading producer of women scholars, particularly in science and mathematics.

  • Two-thirds of Spelman’s graduates enter graduate or professional school, fueling the nation’s private and public sectors with talented women of color.
  • Spelman is among the top five baccalaureate-origin institutions of 1997-2006 Black science and engineering doctoral recipients.
  • Approximately half of all African American women who eventually hold doctoral degrees in the sciences either attend Spelman College or Bennett College.

While all liberal arts institutions share a commitment to intellectual discovery, leadership development and civic engagement, our work at Spelman is unique because our curriculum, pedagogies, and co-curricular experiences are rooted in the historical and sociocultural context of African American women’s lives. While providing cultural relevance to all members of the community, at Spelman we acknowledge the historical legacies of injustice, inequity, resistance and perseverance of African American women. We encourage an appreciation of our students’ own diverse background and culture while simultaneously helping students to connect their lives to those of other people of the African Diaspora and more globally.

Unlike at other institutions that admitted women or that admitted African Americans long after their founding, Spelman students know that their education and advancement have always been at the heart of the institution’s mission. From the moment a new student arrives during New Student Orientation, she encounters through both her curricular and co-curricular experiences African-centered and woman-centered traditions and rites of passage that mark her transition and membership into this community.

  • An opening ceremony entitled, “When and Where I Enter” (inspired by a speech by prominent 19th century African American writer and feminist Maria Stewart) introduces her to Spelman’s history and the core tenets that the institution holds dear: love of learning, sisterhood, ethical and moral leadership, respect, balance, social justice and diversity.
  • A Parting Ceremony -- with its procession of female African drummers, dancers, and singers that leads her away from her family, symbolically marks the first official steps of her journey to becoming a Spelman woman.
  • A Candlelight Induction Ceremony welcomes her into a global sisterhood of over 14,000 women and charges her with the responsibility for leaving a legacy for future generations.

During her first year she enrolls in a two-semester interdisciplinary gender informed course, African Diaspora and the World (ADW), which provides a common experience for new students. ADW makes the African Diaspora the analytical center of inquiry and also teaches students to understand the experiences of women of the African Diaspora through the application of feminist theories. The course promotes sisterhood, leadership, a love of learning, sensitivity to cultural differences, the use of diverse methods of scholarly investigation, and the association between learning and social change (ADW Syllabus, 2007).

Upon her departure at graduation, she engages in equally powerful rituals designed to prepare her for the next phase of her life.

  • An Elder Send-Off Ceremony bestows blessings and final words of wisdom upon her by community elders.
  • A Class Day Ceremony -- in which she wears a white dress and joins a procession of alumnae through an alumnae arch -- symbolically marks her departure from Spelman and entry into greater service in the world.

Certainly, throughout her matriculation at Spelman, there are numerous other ceremonies, rituals and traditions that reflect her place at the center rather than the margins of our community and our commitment to preparing her to become a change agent in a world characterized by a diversity of perspectives, experiences, global issues, concerns and expectations.

Our Unique Opportunity: Spelman’s Model of Student Development

Three years ago, President Beverly Daniel Tatum appointed a Task Force on Student Development to explore how well Spelman College fosters the holistic development of our students and to identify strategies for better integrating the curricular and co-curricular dimensions of their lives. This opportunity emerged at a significant time during which the College entered the initial phases of a strategic planning process, prepared for its reaccreditation review, and prepared to launch a comprehensive fundraising campaign. Consisting of a diverse group of faculty, students and key student affairs professionals, the Task Force engaged in several major tasks including:

  • Exploring how we incorporate current student development theory, scholarship, and research into our curricular and co-curricular programming;
  • Creating our own signature student development model that reflects our institutional mission and purpose,  is characterized by intellectual inquiry and discourse within and outside the classroom, embraces the diversity of our student body, and recognizes our students’ emerging leadership in a world characterized by diversity;
  • Examining “best practices” in student development and how they are realized at Spelman; and
  • Developing our own signature student development programs.

Our work is ongoing, but our conversations have provided an opportunity for us to reflect on Spelman College’s history and mission and to envision its future in light of its unique place in higher education. We have identified those ideals that are most important to us:

  • creating an intellectual climate within and outside the classroom through learning communities, convocations and assemblies, service learning and co-curricular activities;
  • creating an environment that encourages ethical decision making both inside and outside of the classroom;
  • cultivating an environment that acknowledges the diversity of our students; and
  • creating a learning environment that supports, and celebrates a variety of leadership models that represent the diversity of our student body.

We have engaged in rich and meaningful dialogue that ensures that we are focused in our efforts to foster the development of intellectually curious, socially engaged, and globally aware women. We have affirmed our unique African-centered and woman-centered approaches that promote leadership development, service learning, community engagement, activism, and a commitment to social justice among our students. Our on-going efforts reflect our commitment to preparing diverse women leadership in the new millennium.


ADW Syllabus. (2007). An introduction to the African diaspora. Retrieved from 

Guy-Sheftall, B. (2006). Spelman: A Woman’s Place 1881-2006. Atlanta, GA: Spelman College.

Office of Alumnae Affairs (2006). Spelman College History and Traditions Reference Guide. Spelman 
College: Atlanta.

According to the United Negro College Fund (www.uncf.org/members/aboutHBCU), HBCUs graduate over 50% of African American professionals; HBCUs award more than one in three degrees held by African Americans in natural sciences, and half of the degrees held by African Americans in mathematics; and have overall average graduation rates that are higher than the average graduation rate for African Americans at majority institutions. According to the Women’s College Coalition, (www.womenscolleges.org), 30% of Business Week's list of the 50 women who are rising stars in corporate America, 20% of Black Enterprise Magazine’s list of the most powerful African-American women in corporate America, 33% of women board members of Fortune 1000 companies are women's college graduates, and over 20% of all female members of Congress, were graduates of women’s colleges.