Bryn Mawr students have their own definition of what success means
By Sydney Espinosa
There was something strangely tense at Bryn Mawr College.
The campus was quiet and still underneath the winter-chilled midday sun, which shined lazily behind thin, feathery clouds.
The crunchy brown leaves rolled by like the tumbleweeds in a 1960’s Spaghetti Western. A small group of students hurried into nearby dorms and libraries.
Outside, the campus was almost empty. Inside the dorm rooms, libraries, coffee shops, and computer labs were a hive of
Chargers for laptops, phones, and music players filled each outlet, jutting from the wall like roots, sprawling out into nearby Canaday Library.
It was finals week for the 1,300 women at this prestigious liberal arts college in suburban Philadelphia.
Why were they working so frantically? They wanted to do well in their finals. This last-minute push was their way of trying to succeed.
The dictionary defines success as “the favorable or prosperous termination of attempts or endeavors; the attainment of wealth, position, honors, or the like.”
But, what exactly characterizes this elusive concept called “success,” at least among Bryn Mawr women?
To find out, a survey was sent to Bryn Mawr students asking them to supply their definition of “success”—not only today, but in the future as well. With a response rate equal to eight percent of the student body, several clear trends emerged.
To begin with, the vast majority of respondents chose “High grades/GPA” as best describing success at Bryn Mawr. This ranked well above several other traits that were listed, such as “Volunteerism/Civic Engagement,” “Involved in lots of clubs,” “Scholarships/Fellowships,” and “Lots of internships.”
When asked to indicate what they wanted their future to hold, respondents said happiness was most important, then — in this order — social network/relationships, a career, romance/marriage, financial security, an advanced academic degree, making a lasting impact, and, finally, parenthood.
Reasons for attending Bryn Mawr centered on financial aid offered and the college’s sense of community. Almost no one had changed their major, but many wished that they had. Plus, most thought that their Bryn Mawr experience had made an impact on their definition of “success,” their academic interests, their post-graduation plans, and career path.
Interestingly, students described themselves as “goal-oriented,” “hard-working,” and “a leader,” much more often than as “successful.”
Why don’t students feel that they are “Bryn Mawr College” successful?
It might be that there is a disconnect between definitions of personal success and what success at Bryn Mawr is perceived to be.
For 19-year-old History major Quinn Conlan, ‘15, from Annapolis, Md., academic achievement does not necessarily exemplify success for her personally, even though it may by the college’s standards.
“Success is not how well I do [in class],” said Quinn, “but how much I get out of it.”
Quinn exemplifies a viewpoint that the college administration has pushed on its students through various efforts such as offering free SEPTA tickets that can only be used for non-academic purposes. According to the administration, these “fun initiatives” were meant to encourage students to focus less often on grades.
Yet, as the survey showed, the old image of Bryn Mawr success is still there, and students can still get hung up on the academics.
“Academic pressure holds me back from changing my definition of success to a more holistic one,” said Emma Mongoven, 20, a Classics major from St. Paul, Minn.
Still, Mongoven and many other students reported that their own personal definition of success had changed over time.
She described how her personal focus had moved away from her grades and more towards thinking about her satisfaction with life.
“I used to basically define success entirely through academic success” said Mongovan, “and now I make a real effort to define it in terms of happiness and enjoyment of life and things like that.”
Other women had undergone similar changes since arriving at Bryn Mawr, choosing instead to emphasize happiness more as a measure of success.
Despite being in college for only a short time, freshman Kavita Rajani, 18, of Lake Oswego, Ore. said she experienced this as well, though it has taken a few years.
“I used to think that being successful was about taking the hardest classes and getting the best grades, now I recognize that success is much more than that,” said Rajani. “Success is more about how you feel, not what you do.”
Sophomore Hayley Burke, 19, of Hometown Chino Hills, Calif., feels her definition of success has changed greatly. She used to expect herself to be “successful” according to social beliefs. Now majoring in Sociology, she went to a science-focused high school because other people told her it was great.
“When I was at high school, my goal is going to Stanford and doing business, or marrying a nice guy,” said Burke, “I was shaped by the environment, and that is everyone’s idea of success.”
“I wouldn’t consider it [Bryn Mawr College] as a successful college in the past,” she continued. “It was not the ideal for my high school. I had those ideals too.”
“I think my definition of success changes drastically pretty frequently,” said Junior Sarah Buonanno, 21, of Macungie, Pa. “At some points in my life I view success as getting by, and at other times it’s getting above the 85th percentile on the GRE.”
Along with being happier, many students also reported feeling an increased want to help others.
For junior Chloe Connelly, 20, a Political Science major from Ithaca NY, success used to mean having prestigious post-college plans, but she has since diverged from her original goals.
“I used to define success post-college as what kind of prestigious job I could get and law school I could get into,” said Connelly. “Now, I don’t want to go to law school. I want a job that can let me influence people’s lives in a real way.”
With graduation looming, senior Christie Walker, 22, an English major from Weymouth, Mass., has become more mindful of what she hopes to accomplish in her life.
“I used to think of success as getting a good job and making lots of money. Now, for me, I feel that helping someone is more satisfying than making lots of money,” said Walker. “I don’t want to go through life without helping someone.”
Even still, Bryn Mawr’s impact wasn’t limited merely to ideas concerning success. Sometimes, the changes were more widespread.
“Coming to Bryn Mawr has helped me realize the value of diversity,” continued Buonanno. “Bryn Mawr also played a large role in my desire to go to graduate school.”
Senior Maddy Court, 21, of Appleton Wis., discussed how coming to Bryn Mawr College had an impact not only her academic interests in queer theory and gender studies, but also her identity.
“I’m not sure I would have come out as queer as young as I did if not for Bryn Mawr,” said Court. “If I’d gone to the University of Wisconsin like my guidance counselor told me to, I’d probably have majored in something traditional like Classics and waited until my mid-20s to come out.”
While the survey showed that many attributed these changes to their time at Bryn Mawr, how students felt affected was varied.
For 20-year-old Ashley Hahn, ’14, a Political Science and Psychology double major from Allmuchy, N.J., Bryn Mawr has made her more motivated to fit her definition of success.
“My experiences at Bryn Mawr have intensified my passions, with the internships and experiences and things I have learned,” said Hahn. “I want to go out there and help the world more!”
Sophomore English and Africana Studies major Emma Kioko, 19, of Princeton, N.J., has also found that Bryn Mawr made her more motivated and open to fully exploring her interests.
“I came in Pre-Med thinking that going to med school would be the only goal worth having and I couldn’t believe how wrong that thinking was!” said Kioko. “My experience at Bryn Mawr has and continues to play a large role in shaping my goals, aspirations, and interests.”
In general, perceptions on personal success and achievement at Bryn Mawr College have started to shift towards a more holistic view that focuses on individual happiness and well being.
In that case, what is it about Bryn Mawr that prompts these particular shifts and views on success?
Some students felt that it is the all-female environment, and that a co-ed institution would have had a dramatically different effect.
Junior Marielena Toro, 20, agreed that her definition of success would have been different if she were in a co-ed environment.
“I think I would not have been able to appreciate the learning process and its goals so much,” said Toro, who is a Math and Physics double major. “I remember, as a woman in science, feeling mildly unwelcome/uncomfortable in a class full of boys in the advanced math classes — so I generally ended up dropping those classes.”
“Success is not just about the money you will make in the future, but also about whether you enjoy what you are doing and whether you are making a positive difference in someone else’s life,” said junior Tyler Garber, 20, a Sociology major. “I think that Bryn Mawr has helped shaped that point of view for me.”
Others felt that being at an all-women’s college had nothing to do with it.
No longer wanting to pursue law school, Connelly credited a few choice people and extracurricular opportunities both on and off campus for having shaped her current views on success.
“Activist-y stuff has made me realize I can do that for a living—opportunity originally through a class, and an alum,” she said. “Most classes haven’t influenced that, since most emphasize success as prestige.”
Despite differences in personal definitions of success, students indicated that, among people generally, the definition of a “successful woman” has changed since their mother’s generation.
An overwhelming majority thought that women today could effectively maintain a personally fulfilling career and a family, i.e. “have it all.”
“I think women can choose for themselves how and if they want to try to balance their family and career,” said senior Ariel Kraakman, 22, a Russian major, “more so than in, say, the 50’s.”
According to Rajani, “It’s important to do the things you love and enjoy and make those the things that define you and your success.”
Though happiness was an important component to personal ideas about success and achievement for many students, some placed things such as love, raising a family, career, and having a lasting impact, above it.
For junior Sociology major Nikki Ditto, 19, of San Clemente, Calif., being in a loving romantic relationship is most important to her lifelong success.
“I want to say that I fell in love at least once,” said Ditto, “because I think that is a feeling or emotion you should experience at least once in your life.”
Even though her concept of success could change by the moment, Buonanno has a definite idea of what she hopes to achieve in her long-term future.
“The most important thing to me is I want to be able to say that I am still totally in love with my best friend, that I have a great relationship with my parents and all six of my siblings, that I raised a happy family, and that I am an adoptive mommy,” she said. “Relationships will always be the most important thing in my life.”
Students have been drawn to Bryn Mawr for a variety of reasons, but what cannot be denied is that it is a prestigious school that provides its students a high-end education.
For all intents and purposes, Bryn Mawr is a place of academic achievement and will probably continue to frame success through grades.
Yet, how the Bryn Mawr women view success is shifting with the times. Today, success is less about fulfilling societal expectations.
But, even still, their aspirations are much more than that.
For them, success is about being happy, and doing whatever makes that happen.