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A New Time for Women

Since its founding in 1918 as the New Jersey College for Women, Douglass College has been a beacon of inspiration for women. Ninety-five years later, the tradition lives on through its current incarnation—Douglass Residential College—which provides a medley of programs to prepare its students to be tomorrow’s leaders, particularly in the sciences. By Leslie Garisto Pfaff 

Jacquelyn Litt (center), the dean of Douglass Residential College, is pictured with Ololade Sanusi (left), who is a sophomore majoring in biomedical engineering and planning to attend medical school, and Cathy Guo, a recent graduate who majored in communication and economics.
Jacquelyn Litt (center), the dean of Douglass Residential College, is pictured with Ololade Sanusi (left), who is a sophomore majoring in biomedical engineering and planning to attend medical school, and Cathy Guo, a recent graduate who majored in communication and economics. Photography by Nick Romanenko

On the evening of September 18, 2013, a petite, dark-haired young woman stepped up to the dais in Trayes Hall on the Douglass Campus and told her story before a rapt audience. “Just four years ago, on a sunny morning in September 2009,” she began, “I moved onto this beautiful campus from Beijing with nothing more than three huge suitcases, and fear.”

It’s easy to understand why Cathy Guo was fearful: she was facing a rigorous academic program in English, which was her second language. Guo SAS’12 knew next to nothing about contemporary American culture, a situation that only exacerbated her natural shyness. But within days—thanks, she says, to Douglass’s welcoming staff and student leaders—she’d already started to think of the women’s residential college as home.

In the four-plus years since that uncertain September, Guo declared a major in communication and economics, met with policymakers on Capitol Hill, co-organized a TED conference on the Rutgers campus, became a delegate at the United Nations through the International Youth Council, graduated Phi Beta Kappa, got a position at a global economic research firm, and was one of the featured speakers at the September dinner celebrating Douglass Residential College’s 95th anniversary.

For Ololade Sanusi—who also spoke at the dinner—Douglass was foreign territory but soon became a second home. The native Nigerian, who is a sophomore, is majoring in biomedical engineering and plans to attend medical school, hoping to help bring improved health care to her underserved nation. At many colleges, Guo and Sanusi would stand out, not only for their unusual backgrounds, but also for their scholarship, leadership, and dedication to giving back. But at Douglass, which continues to attract the best and the brightest, they’re only two among a standout student body, one that expresses a high degree of interest in the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, and math), with 36 percent declaring a STEM major. “Our student body is a self-selected group of women who have chosen a demanding program that enriches their education,” says Douglass’s dean, Jacquelyn Litt. She enumerates just some of the programs the college offers: living-learning communities that bring together like-minded students in an atmosphere of mutual support (including the newly established Douglass Women in Engineering Living-Learning Community on the Busch Campus); “Issues in Women’s Leadership,” a mandatory 3-credit course; the Douglass Project for Rutgers Women in Math, Science, and Engineering; externships with esteemed Douglass alumnae; and a wide variety of leadership opportunities.

Those opportunities are one of the benefits that attracted Guo to Douglass in the first place—“I was always a class leader,” she says. As an international student, she also liked the idea of living among a close-knit group of women at a university with a reputation for size and opportunity. For Sanusi, who planned to major in a male-dominated field, the support of a community of women was even more important. She joined the Engineering Living-Learning Community, which, she says, “gave me the opportunity to live and interact with 19 female engineers and receive support unlike any other at Rutgers.”

Both women say they’ve profited from a world-class education at Rutgers. But it’s at Douglass where they’ve attained the skills—and the confidence—to make use of what they’ve learned. Through her academic work, Guo mastered the intricacies of global indicators and international trade, but she credits her four externships—including one with Jeanne Fox DC’75, CLAW’79, commissioner of New Jersey’s Board of Public Utilities—with teaching her something even more crucial to her goal of becoming a diplomat: interpersonal and communication skills. Thanks to Douglass’s participation in the Public Leadership Education Network (PLEN), a national consortium of women’s colleges working together to prepare women for leadership in the public sector, Guo traveled to Washington, D.C., and met with some of the most powerful women on Capitol Hill, including the minority leader of the U.S. House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi.

As Guo related her story, many of the alumnae gathered at the dinner were visibly impressed. “Hearing the students tonight has convinced us that this is a new time for women,” said Gail Phillips Houlihan DC’58, a 2013 recipient of the Margaret T. Corwin Award for Alumnae Service. It certainly is a new time for Guo. Peering into the future, she ended her speech on a note that seemed to resonate with everyone in the audience. “In a few years,” she said, “when you see me on TV with a big smile and a lot of confidence, it’s because of the foundation that Douglass gave me. You can shout it out: ‘That’s a Douglass woman.’” •

For further information, visit douglass.rutgers.edu.