Skip to main content

Program Seeks to Empower, Support Female Undergraduates

This fall, 18 first-year female students will be named the first Baldwin Scholars, a program that offers a single-sex education in the larger co-educational setting

DURHAM, N.C. -- Many female undergraduates who attend Duke University in its current co-educational setup say their self-confidence has suffered in college, according to the Women's Initiative Steering Committee report released last fall.

Graduates of the Woman's College at Duke, which merged with Trinity College in 1972, tell a different story. They remember having numerous leadership opportunities and access to successful female role models. They remember their self-confidence building during their four years in Durham.


Now, Duke is starting a program for female undergraduates that school officials hope will be similarly empowering and supportive.


This fall, 18 first-year female students will be named the first Baldwin Scholars, a program that offers a single-sex education in the larger co-educational setting. The program, named for Woman's College founding dean Alice Baldwin, will grow over four years to enroll 72 female undergraduates.


The Baldwin Scholars program was created to address some key findings of the Women's Initiative, a year-long study of the status of Duke's female students, graduate and professional students, employees and faculty.


Among the findings, undergraduate students described a social atmosphere that enforces stringent social "rules" about acceptable behavior. Many young women feel an expectation of "effortless perfection" -- that they should be smart, accomplished, fit, beautiful and popular, without showing any visible effort. As a result, some students lose self-confidence or suffer body-image concerns.


The research also found that undergraduates are dissatisfied with the dating scene, and that women feel like they must play by the men's rules. What's more, men are over-represented in leadership positions in student government, while women tend to hold leadership roles in community service or arts groups.


The Baldwin Scholars program aims to chip away at these social norms by creating a supportive environment in which women, with the help of older female role models, can develop their own identity, set their own standards and learn leadership skills.


"Students said they want this," said Donna Lisker, director of the Duke University Women's Center and co-director of the Baldwin Scholars program. "We think we can create an alternative social environment."


Lisker and other program leaders expect the participants to carry this message to the broader community. They acknowledge that transforming Duke's social environment will take time, but creating this program represents an important first step.


"These women are going to be in leadership roles that they haven't typically held," said Colleen Scott, assistant dean of Residence Life and Housing Services and interim assistant director of the Baldwin Scholars program. "If we are able to support these women into these types of roles, they'll have more influence than they have now."


Information about the program will be sent to all incoming first-year students this summer. The application and interview process will take place in the fall, with the first Baldwin Scholars being named in November. Lisker said the class will be diverse in myriad ways, including by race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status.


The program, run by Student Affairs and Arts and Sciences, will have classroom and extracurricular components.


During the second semester of freshman year, participants will be required to take an interdisciplinary class open only to them. The course will be team-taught by female faculty and focus on a central theme, such as gender and power. The faculty who teach the course will spend time with the students outside the classroom through lectures, meals and other events.


In their sophomore year, students will be required to live together on West Campus and collaborate on a community service project. "This is part of asking them to look outward," Scott said.


During the junior year, students will complete an internship in a field of their choice. Ideally, Baldwin Scholars will be matched with a Duke alumna in that workplace who can serve as a mentor.


Finally, the program will end senior year with a seminar.


Baldwin Scholars will not be awarded any funds for participating in the program, but retreats, seminars and other mandatory events will not cost them anything and internships will be funded.


As they mature through the program, the scholars will be expected to serve as mentors to younger students, attract new students to the program and hold leadership positions on campus.


"This is a very exciting program that has the potential to significantly enhance the quality of the undergraduate experience not only for those women directly enrolled, but also for undergraduate women at Duke in general," said Emily M. Klein, faculty co-director of the Baldwin Scholars program and associate professor of geology in the Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences.


"My hope is that the program will attract women with diverse interests and career goals, particularly in the sciences, as well as women already interested in gender issues."