This project studied the impact of an undergraduate program that enables female college students to earn a minor in women's studies through comprehensive examination of gender roles and relationships and through mentorships.
In 1980, Westhampton College, at the University of Richmond created a unique model of intentional design for the empowerment and transformation of women. The Women Involved in Living and Learning Program, (WILL), provides a comprehensive curricular and co-curricular program for undergraduate women in a supportive and challenging environment where women can realize their individual and collective potential.
Approximately 25 to 30 applicants enter the four-year program during the spring semester of their first year. Each member of WILL earns a minor in women's studies, the academic foundation of the program. Required courses in women's studies provide WILL students with common intellectual backgrounds and analytical frameworks with which to examine gender roles and relationships. WILL students also complete a supervised internship, attend WILL sponsored gender-related programs, and are members of the WILL student organization, which provides students with formal and informal leadership opportunities
While some limited research has been conducted in the past on program effects, much of the information available was anecdotal. Beginning in 1995 and continuing to the present, Westhampton College and the Wellesley Centers for Women have been examining the impact of the program over the short and long term on WILL alumnae and current students. Over the last five years, a number of studies have been carried out including: a survey of WILL alumnae from 1980 through the class of 1995 and a stratified random sample of non-program alumnae from the same classes; annual WILL program surveys which look at the involvement and satisfaction of current WILL participants; WILL class surveys that ask students to assess the effectiveness of required WILL courses; annual focus groups with each class of WILL students; and a prospective four-year longitudinal study of the classes of 1999 and 2000.
Data from the alumnae survey points to a synergy between the effects of the WILL program and the university. WILL participants were significantly more likely to see their university experience as contributing to success in their chosen careers, assumption of leadership roles, enhanced self-confidence, and the ability to think critically and communicate effectively. Moreover, the effects of the WILL program appear to be cumulative; the highest scores on a variety of measures were among those who participated in the program the full four years. This finding is supported by data on current WILL students, among whom seniors report the highest scores.
There were strong similarities between current WILL students and WILL alumnae. Well over 90% of both groups said they would recommend the program to incoming women students. When asked to describe WILL, both groups used words like, enlightening, empowering, challenging, eye opening, and unique. Preliminary results from quantitative analysis of the longitudinal surveys of the classes of 1999 and 2000 indicate that WILL women show significantly higher levels of self-worth, feminist identity and leadership than non-WILL members of the same classes.
WILL has met its primary objective of narrowing the differences in the college experiences of women and men. WILL encourages female students to realize their potential by appreciating their abilities, providing role models and developing their confidence. WILL offers a unique approach to counteract limiting gender-based stereotypes, boost low confidence levels that often characterize the female collegiate identity, and help transform the lives of women students in ways that 21st-century life will demand.