Not long ago I heard about a program designed to encourage women to pursue advanced studies in math. This program, the Center for Women in Mathematics at Smith College, is a very smart idea. I am particularly intrigued and impressed by the post-baccalaureate program.
Women who have an undergraduate degree that was not math-intensive or who have an interest in math but are not ready for (or sure about) graduate study in math spend a semester or a year at Smith College, taking courses at Smith or one of the other nearby schools, doing research with a professor, and being mentored about graduate school and career options.
This all sounds great, but one of the most amazing parts is that there is a full tuition waiver and students are provided with a modest stipend. The funds come from the college and from NSF.
As a graduate advisor at a large university, I would be very interested in an applicant who had successfully completed such a program. In addition to the excellent experience gained via coursework and research, a student who spends an intense year on such an endeavor has demonstrated motivation and commitment. These are essential elements for success in graduate school, but are among the most difficult things to guess about applicants to a graduate program just based on application materials.
Wouldn't I be at all concerned that a student had needed an extra year to get ready for grad school and hadn't known since she was 4 that she wanted to study math? No, I would not be concerned at all. Not everyone knows what they want to do with their life, even when forced to declare a major in college. Not everyone gets the courses they need when they need them. A program like this could well have an impact on the number of women who choose and succeed in math-related careers.
To those who worry that women who receive their training in math or science at a women's college and who therefore might not be prepared for "the real world", I will repeat my usual response to this: Do you think women need practice being discriminated against?
If a young woman spends a semester, a year, or 4 years being treated with respect as a scholar, this will make her more -- not less -- prepared to deal with the so-called real-world.
Women's colleges may not be a good environment for all women, but I am glad they are still around and inventing new ways to help women succeed.
7 months ago