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Independent Space-->Independent Thought-->Independence

Leigh Alexander's picture

In the busy community of Bryn Mawr, students are driven to express themselves and are given the trust and independence to govern both themselves and their educations.  That being said, the physical community of Bryn Mawr’s college campus reflects this independence through the intimate spaces students are able to retreat to.  Staff Writer for the Bi-College News, Rachel Ohrenschall, writes “Stressed out by midterms back in October, this author felt a Thoreauesque need to be one with nature.  As such, I stumbled across Bryn Mawr’s own special oasis—the Morris woods,” (Ohrenschall).   This isn’t the only place of retreat for Bryn Mawr students, in fact, even the college’s construction itself acknowledges the important roles of privacy and independence in a place for cultivating minds. At Bryn Mawr, the gift of independent space parallels the college’s early belief that education should lead to both the independence, both in thought and monetarily, and empowerment of young women.

In the example of Ohrenschall’s description of her own personal haven at Bryn Mawr, we can see this concept of private, independent space come to life. Despite the fact that the Morris woods is college owned, students, myself included, find it to be a safe space to retreat from the more populated main campus. Ohrenschall in describing Morris words as a “special oasis,” highlights the college’s ability to foster the independence of its students both in the large-scale and small-scale organizational aspects of the college.

            Moreover, at the inception of planning regarding the college, advisor James E. Rhoads described his desire to create Bryn Mawr as not “an annex but fully separate [from Haverford], allowing ‘more untrammeled and vigorous growth of both Institutions,’” (Horowitz 106).  In this way, before the school was even built, it was intended to be an independently functioning institution.  

            Similarly to the concept of the college being an independent entity from neighboring Haverford, the layout of the campus and the construction of the dorms suggests further independence for the student body.  The academic buildings were purposely set apart from the dormitories “at convenient distances” (Horowitz 109-110).  The fact that the academic buildings were separated from the living quarters of the students suggests an independence from complete emersion in academics and a trust between the professors and students that students will venture out to their classes at the appropriate times. In this way, the student body was not being watched over in a Lowood school situation, but rather, students were trusted to be responsible enough to attend their classes when they agreed to do so.  Moreover, this separation suggests the students’ abilities to cultivate a life apart from their academic one.   Because the classroom buildings are set closely to the dormitories, students are able to depart from both and go to the other as they please or see fit.  In this way, the Bryn Mawr student is again given the tools to craft her own educational experience rather than just being told to follow the guidelines set out for her.

            Additionally the “homes for students…” were each “organized as a private household” which, in the sense of communal living is a fairly independent way of living. The idea of each “dwelling house” being able to be run in smaller sects rather than being collectively run by the institution, in addition to the student body’s ability to govern themselves, furthers the idea of Bryn Mawr students having a strong sense of education and personal independence.

            In addition to the governance aspects and the positions of the buildings themselves, the construction of the interiors of the building and dormitories allow for more “privacy than any of the other women’s colleges,” since the college spent time “allocating much more space to student rooms,” (Horowitz 110).  Rooms were “suites and large scale rooms, several of unusual size,” many of which had “bay windows...” and “…sitting rooms,” (Horowitz 110, 124). These rooms provided, and still provide, a retreat from educational life and a space of independent living.  These large rooms in addition to the 124 tall reading desks in the reading room of the college’s original library, provide a place for independent, personal and secluded space for person growth, relaxation and education.  In providing students with these spaces the college recognizes the significance of personal spaces and the ability of students to make productive use of them.

             Not only did this gift of space allow students to have the ability to fashion their own educational and personal experiences but this space did, and still does, give the gift of confidence. If students, are given the space to work and learn and live independently, and are successful in doing so, they gain both the experience and confidence to continue doing so, even once they walk off campus with their diplomas. The confidence of the institution in the students directly correlates to the confidence of students in themselves.  Students not only become independent, but problem solvers and solution finders, not only because they are given the education to be so, but also because they believe that they are so. 

Works Cited

Horowitz,  Helen. “A Certain Style of  ‘Quaker Lady’ Dress” and “Behold They Are Women!” Alma Mater: Design and Experience in the Women’s Colleges From their Nineteenth-Century Beginnings to the 1930s. Knopf, 1984. 105-133.

 Ohrenschall, Rachel. "Morris Woods: Living History – The Bi-College News." Morris Woods: Living History – The Bi-College News. 18 Nov. 2011. Web. 7 Nov. 2014. . 


Anne Dalke's picture

Leigh Alexander--

You deliver here a nice, coherent description of Bryn Mawr as an architectural space that encourages independence among its students. It’s a good story. What happens to it if you lay alongside the data you’ve gathered the claims of some of your classmates? … to your saying that students find Morris Woods “to be a safe space to retreat from the more populated main campus,” when you read Hadiyyah’s account of her foray into Morris Woods, full of unhappiness and apprehension? Or about the certain connotation of melancholy and ghosts that attended Serena’s?…. Or to your description of the college as a site to “work and learn and live independently,” when you read Weilla’s description of the “arms of love” that she sees in the College buildings, which make us all “feel safe and cozy”? So that’s an query about the dangers of generalizing from one’s own experience, of over-generalizing, which we might discuss….

Deeper, though (and I know you do love my deep questions…) is the query of how a school can “give the gift of confidence” to its students. You say that if they are given the space to be independent, “and are successful in doing so, they gain both the experience and confidence to continue doing so.” But how does that happen? Consider, as a counter narrative, all the conversations we’ve had (from Breaking the Silence: Mental Health Issues @ Bryn Mawr College to Mental Health on Campus) about the challenges of being independent, or (if you want the longer view), an essay I published last year, with the erstwhile student leader of Active Minds, Clare Mullaney, On Being Transminded: Disabling Achievement, Enabling Exchange.  And let’s talk….