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An Oasis of Opportunity

Douglass Residential College—the successor to Douglass College—has built upon its predecessor’s time-honored mission of supporting generations of female scholars and leaders through an encouraging environment and a devoted group of faculty and alumnae mentors. By Leslie Garisto Pfaff

Thanks to Douglass Residential College, Janina Pescinski can now say that she’s sampled malkou. From June through August of 2010, the Douglass senior interned at the American Embassy in Niger, and among the summer’s wealth of life-altering experiences was the chance to sit down to a meal of what turned out to be sheep’s head stew. Pescinski is anything but neophobic, and once she got over her initial surprise, she dined with relish. For that matter, she embraced the entire internship with a similar blend of enthusiasm and curiosity, returning home with an ex­panded palate and much broader sense of what it means to be young in a nation undergoing rapid development. As part of her duties, she helped to advise African students hoping to study in the United States and was struck by how much she had in common with them—and how dramatically their lives diverged from hers. “Their goals are similar to mine,” she says, “but they have to work so much harder to achieve them because they don’t have the same kind of opportunities and access.”

Pescinski was likely born with her verve for discovery, but there’s no doubt that some of it was honed at Douglass. Founded in 1918 by Mabel Smith Douglass as the New Jersey College for Women, the institution has undergone dramatic, sometimes controversial, changes over the course of its 92 years but has managed to hold fast to its mission of offering women an environment in which they can thrive and excel. In 1955, in deference to its founder, the school was renamed Douglass College. In 1981, as part of a universitywide reorganization, it underwent a more sweeping transformation when its faculty was merged into the Faculty of Arts and Sciences–New Brunswick (along with the faculties of Rutgers, Livingston, and University Colleges). Douglass could have lost its iden­tity along with its faculty, but incoming dean Mary S. Hartman recognized the transition as a chance to address what she now calls “the big issue of the 21st century: women’s leadership.” During her tenure, she instituted an array of programs to encourage young women to take the lead in their chosen fields, including the Douglass Project for Rutgers Women in Math, Science, and Engineering, one of the first such programs in the nation, and the Blanche, Edith, and Irving Laurie New Jersey Chair in Women’s Studies, which gives Douglass students the chance to interact with acclaimed visiting scholars.

In 2006, Rutgers–New Brunswick completed what had been initiated in 1981 with the unification of its faculty: a second sweeping reorganization of the campus that merged the students and administrations of Douglass, Livingston, Rutgers, and University Colleges into a single School of Arts and Sciences (SAS), and renamed Cook College the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences (SEBS). The move standardized admissions, core curriculum, and graduation requirements. It also provided new living and learning opportunities, with Douglass College emerging as Douglass Residential College (DRC). Its innovative programs support a new generation of female scholars and leaders and are open to all Rutgers–New Brunswick undergraduate women, no matter the undergraduate school in which they are enrolled. (Roughly 75 percent of the students are enrolled at SAS and 20 percent at SEBS.) Today, women associated with DRC earn their degrees from their individual schools and, at the time of graduation, receive transcript recognition and participate in the Douglass convocation celebration.

Through her participation with DRC, Pescinski, who hopes to work for the United Nations or an international nongovernmental organization (NGO) after graduate school, says that DRC has given her “the confidence to be much more assertive in pursuing opportunities I’m interested in,” including the chance to attend a meeting of the United Nations’ Commission on the Status of Women in March 2010.

Like Mother, Like Daughter
Pescinski isn’t the first in her family to find support at Douglass. Her mother, Janet Fabbo Pescinski, attended the school in the 1970s, and she and her fellow students, she says, were encouraged “to go out and try new careers. We got the message that there were a lot of doors and paths open to us,” including one that led her to a Douglass-sponsored externship with a Douglass alumna at Chemical Bank, which helped her decide to pursue an M.B.A. (Like her mother, Janina took part in the still popular externship program, shadowing an alumna at East Jersey Olde Towne Village, a historical recreation site in Piscataway, New Jersey.)

Fabbo Pescinski DC’79, RBS’84 thinks that her daughter’s experience at Douglass Residential College may end up being even more valuable than her own. “Within her first few weeks as a freshman,” she notes, “Janina had exposure to a wider network and had conversations with faculty and fellow students deeper than I had in my entire college career.”

That depth of opportunity is critical in a world that offers unprecedented options but continues to hold women back. “People say, ‘Women are equal, so why do we still need this?’” notes Harriet Davidson, who served as interim dean at DRC from 2008 until the beginning of September, referring to the wealth of women’s programs offered to DRC students. “It’s true that women do better in school than men, but as soon as they’re out the door, they fall off a cliff. Women don’t tend to promote themselves or negotiate the way men do. They’re not reaching the positions of leadership we know they’re qualified for.”

DRC’s mission is to keep women from plummeting off that cliff. Every incoming first-year student is required to take a women’s leadership course illuminating the effects of gender in women’s lives and helping students develop the leadership skills they’ll need to navigate life during, and especially after, college. “Everything I’ve learned at Douglass comes down to leadership,” says Janina Pescinski. “It has shown me that I can be a leader in many ways, not just in the visible positions of power that we typically label as ‘leadership.’” Students who choose to delve more deeply into the academics and applications of leadership can take advantage of the rigorous two-year Leadership Scholars program at Rutgers’ Institute for Women’s Leadership. (A consortium of eight organizations including DRC, the institute is devoted to advancing women’s leadership in all walks of life.)

Douglass has a long tradition of encouraging students to assume leadership positions on campus, and the residential college continues to expand leadership opportunities: DRC students can work as tour guides through the Red Pine Ambassadors program, serve on the Douglass Orientation Committee, plan weekends for prospective and newly admitted students as part of the Douglass Student Recruitment Network, or, like School of Arts and Sciences junior Karin Oxford, become Peer Academic Leaders (PALs). Trained to provide academic guidance to fellow students, PALs also run enrichment programs, including the Bridge Program, a series of work-shops helping first-year students make the transition from high school to college. “Finding out what I wanted to do was such an important process for me,” says Oxford, who is double majoring in English and journalism and media studies. “I really like the idea of helping other women discover that for themselves.”

Although DRC, as its name suggests, is a residential college, the Douglass experience is open to commuting students, who also benefit from the PAL system. “As a commuter,” says Aysha Azmat, a senior at the School of Arts and Sciences who lives at home in Princeton, New Jersey, “you usually don’t get to know anybody.” But because the school dedicates a PAL specifically to commuters, Azmat has a more intimate relationship with the college community, taking advantage of activities (including the Mock Trial Association) that she might not have considered.

This sense of support has always characterized the Douglass experience. Jacquelyn Litt, who took over as the dean of Douglass Residential College and the Douglass Campus in September, considers it one of the key benefits of DRC. “The culture among staff and leadership is a kind of calling to support women students,” she says, “and they do it with skill and talent and devotion.” That’s as true today as it has been throughout the long history of Douglass. When Joyce Albers-Schonberg DC’65 reminisces about her time here, support is the first thing she mentions. “The faculty took a personal interest in you,” she remembers. Indeed, it was advice from chemistry professor Phyllis Dunbar that helped her chart an unexpected career path. “I liked science, and I thought I might want to be a laboratory technician. Phyllis advised me to major in microbiology or chemistry in order to get a degree that would give me more options.” She chose microbiology, landing a job after graduation in Merck’s research department. Eventually, she got an M.B.A. from New York University and worked on Wall Street as an analyst covering the pharmaceutical and health care services industries. Now retired, she’s brought the experience full circle, sponsoring a scholarship for women in the sciences—one of many granted specifically to Douglass students.

A Unique Sense of Belonging
The fact that DRC is a small residential college (comprising roughly 1,800 students) in the midst of a sprawling world-class research university allows it to continue to offer the kind of one-on-one support it’s always been known for, and its students graduate with a unique sense of belonging. Every woman at Douglass is likely to know the school’s dean personally. “Douglass retains its sense of community: I know the girls, and they know me,” says Davidson.

Because of its size and generous alumnae endowment, Davidson notes, Douglass has been able to serve as a laboratory for the rest of Rutgers. DRC has piloted a number of successful programs that have been adopted by the university, perhaps most significantly its living-learning communities. These small residence hall groups allow students to delve into particular interests—including creativity, entrepreneurial business, foreign languages, and East Asian culture—and encourage social and intellectual bonds. Douglass’s Bunting-Cobb residential hall is devoted to women in math, science, and engineering, part of the forward-looking Douglass Project, which supports undergraduate women in the sciences through a variety of enrichment programs. “When young women are living together and have other people to talk to who are taking organic chemistry and calculus, it greatly enhances their likelihood of sticking with it,” says Joan Bennett, associate vice president of the Office for the Promotion of Women in Science, Engineering, and Mathematics. “And,” she adds, “there is no more supportive place on the entire campus than those residential communities.”

Last year, Pescinski lived in the Human Rights House with 20 other women who shared a passion for social justice and world affairs. In addition to taking a course together in the subject of human rights, they had the opportu­nity to pursue a special theme. They chose children’s rights, and spent winter break in Romania visiting NGOs and meeting with Romanian students studying the subject. Like Pescinski’s internship in Niger, the trip opened her eyes to both differences and similarities among cultures. “When we returned to New Brunswick, we compared the situations in Romania and New Jersey,” she says, “and found that we face a lot of similar challenges.”

A Little Jewel in the Rutgers Crown
It is students like Pescinski who have helped make Douglass what Associate Alumnae of Douglass College president Tina Gordon DC’72 calls “a little jewel in the Rutgers crown.” “What Douglass offered me,” she says, “and what I think it still offers, is the best of all possible worlds, because you’re part of a big university”—women at DRC are free to take any class offered at Rutgers—“and yet you have all the advantages of being in a small single-sex setting.” The idea is clearly catching on. Barry V. Qualls, vice president for undergraduate education at Rutgers, notes that when DRC was formed in 2007, “many felt it was a death knell, because students wouldn’t think about coming to Douglass. We thought that if we could just get 300 students a year, we’d have a chance of keeping it going.” Last year, 475 women chose to become part of Douglass Residential College’s incoming first-year class, and as a group they’re among Rutgers’ best and brightest: their collective GPA is higher than that of the university as a whole, and they represent the most diverse population on an already diverse campus. That may help to explain, says Qualls, why Rutgers president Richard L. McCormick “regards DRC as a significant part of his legacy and one of the key success stories of the undergraduate transformation.” In fact, when incoming Dean Litt, formerly the founding chair of women’s and gender studies at the University of Missouri at Columbus, enumerates her reasons for accepting the position, DRC’s students are at the top of her list. She cites “their passion for engagement in the college and the community, their commitment to leadership and to expanding their intellectual horizons.”

Students value DRC as much for its abiding traditions as for its brave new leadership programs. When Pescinski joined the Voorhees Choir, she helped her mother reconnect with a tradition she’d loved as a young woman. Yule Log is a ceremony as old as Douglass itself, offering students the chance to share a quiet moment in their otherwise frenetic lives. “It was still the same beautiful event that I recalled as a student,” says Fabbo Pescinski, who came to hear her daughter sing and now returns annually. At the end of the academic year, Douglass women still walk the Sacred Path, from George Street to College Hall, which is lined with fires into which students toss pinecones representing wishes for the future. “Students cherish these traditions, beloved remnants of an older college system,” says Davidson, who gestures to a framed bit of embroidery hanging on the wall of the dean’s office. Carefully sewn into the cloth are the names of 42 women who made up the Class of 1922, the first to graduate from Douglass. At a time when only 7 percent of the female population was enrolled in an institution of higher education, they were pioneers and, as such, they might well be pleased with Davidson’s summation of what continues to constitute the well-touted “Douglass difference.” “We’re teaching young women to be active producers of knowledge, not just passive consumers,” she says. “That, to me, should be the model, not just for a women’s college, but for higher education in general.” It’s likely that Douglass Residential College students will be among the most active in this generation, and generations to come, thanks to Douglass’s pioneering history and its emphasis on women’s leadership. Its programs will continue to inspire other colleges and other young women across the country. But it’s useful to remember, as Hartman puts it, that “at Douglass, we got there first.” •