When the Aquinos went to celebrate their daughter Giulietta’s birthday on her college campus in May 1990, they had to wade through a sea of makeshift tents, sleeping bags and students holding “better dead than co-ed” signs, to find her.
They were surprised to find Giulietta linked arm-in-arm with her fellow students blockading the registrar’s office at Mills College, the Oakland, Calif.-based women’s college she chose to attend the previous fall.
Aquino, a first-generation college student, was bound by her newfound love for Mills to oppose a decision by the institution’s board to open the school to male students for the first time. Low enrollment and poor financial prospects had driven it and other women’s colleges to resort to co-education.
“By nature I am a rule follower but when I heard about the decision that was made I was very upset because I made a commitment to attend an all-women’s college,” said Aquino, now the dean of undergraduate admissions at Mills. “I saw the value of a women’s-only education.”
Determined to shut down their school completely, students staged a strike for 16 days blocking entrances and refusing entry to staff just a few days shy of commencement. They took shifts guarding the doors and getting food, Aquino said, eventually garnering local support and national media attention.
“I try not to become too nostalgic but it was my first act of civil disobedience and I thought I was going to be arrested,” she said. “It’s amazing to still be a part of this community.”
Mills is still a women’s college and is celebrating the 20th anniversary of their board’s recommitment to single-sex education thanks to the actions of their students. The school has undergone a stark shift since the days when it was founded by the daughters of White California-bound settlers in the nineteenth century and has developed a successful model for diversity success that stems from the top down.
In the last decade, Mills has undergone a “renaissance” of sorts, said college President Janet Holmgren, who was hired just after the decision was reversed.
“When I came on board there was a need to understand and expand the definition of what it meant for Mills to be accessible to all women,” Dr. Holmgren said.
She immediately began to institute policies to recruit faculty, students and board members of color to help fill enrollment gaps and celebrate diversity.
“We saw that there was a talent pool that we were simply missing out on,” Holmgren said. “It was a sound investment and it was definitely a place where Mills should have gone earlier in its history.”
Increased financial aid, alumni giving and investment accompanied efforts to grow the school’s lagging endowment and re-imagine its marketing strategy. Holmgren said Mills’ socially conscious bent made the case for diversity a natural course with programs, such as the popular ethnic studies major, to target nontraditional groups of women.
Similar resistance brought ethnic studies to Mills 40 years ago, at the behest of students and to the chagrin of dissenters. Celebrating their anniversary last fall, students say the celebrations represented more than the memories of sit-ins organized by the Black Student Union or students marching on the president’s office. It was an occasion to reflect on the voices that have been heard since the field opened, they say.
Caught up in the same culture war roaring nationwide in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Bay area became the axis of student struggle. It was only appropriate the college would become one of the first institutions to adopt a program that challenged convention and rewrote the annals of history, Mills officials say.
Ethnic studies department chair Julia Sudbury said the discipline is at the forefront of producing socially engaged scholarship.
“Students don’t just do book learning, they also take their skills to communities of color and are able to create community solutions,” she said.
Mills’ ethnic studies program has become the heart of its curriculum literally and intellectually. Once located in a bungalow on the periphery of campus, students had to venture from one department to the next to take classes from a range of faculty.
But once they established a reputation for producing well-prepared graduates, Dr. Sudbury said, they formed an academic department and were relocated to Mills Hall—the hub of the campus.
“There has been not just growth within department but the department is also contributing to the growth of the college,” Sudbury said. “In the last 10 years, our centrality is reflected in the mission of the college and the teaching priorities.”
Jabrilla Carr, a Mills senior majoring in ethnic studies and psychology, admitted she didn’t know how ethnic studies would complement her major but is now convinced the learning will affect whatever she chooses to do.
Sudbury said building a program focused on building socially conscious citizens with universal skills contributes to their success with students of color.
“Everybody understands that ethnic studies is central to retaining and graduating students of color,” she said. “Mills makes that link between the student body, the curriculum and the wider community. The work we do is not peripheral. It is considered to be the best of what liberal arts is about and puts ethnic studies at the center as opposed to something on the sidelines.”
Since Holmgren assumed leadership and led these initiatives, Mills has seen a solid increase in the number of students of color such as Carr. In 1990, about 20 percent of the student body were minorities. Today, it’s more than 50 percent. Faculty of color, like Sudbury, represent a quarter of their teaching staff, up from 5 percent in 1990.
“We are reaching a broader socioeconomic class and bringing in stronger students,” Aquino said, who added 30 percent of Mills students are first-generation like her. “Someone argued this couldn’t be done in higher education, but here we are doing it successfully.”
Aquino said women of color have higher graduation rates than the general population. About 86 percent of Latinas complete their degrees, while the rate is 63 percent for all students.
Holmgren said Mills is far from a utopia but it is an example of diversity working for an institution to save its past and ensure its future.
“We have been able to strengthen our student body overall by investing in diversity,” Holmgren said. “Having diversity in top leadership and society overall is the only way we are going to create a world where people can exercise all their talents and contribute.”
*A previous version of this story incorrectly characterized the percent increase in the number of students of color enrolling at Mills college between 1990 and 2010. Mills has experienced a 150 percent increase not 400 percent.