Igniting Change for Generations to Come — A Defining Moment at Wellesley

Women, not “girls”

I keenly remember my confusion during my first few weeks at Wellesley when upperclassmen would correct us every time we referred to ourselves (or others referred to us) as “Wellesley Girls”. “We are Wellesley Women” they would assert. I must admit that I didn’t understand the important distinction at first. But now, looking back at my formative years on an all-female campus, being precise about our “frame” was the first sign that this was an environment where we would be given opportunities to assert our power, to show our maturity and drive, and to put ourselves forward in ways that would be respected and recognized. It was a statement about how we would enter the world.

“Women” are not “girls”. Women, in the “Wellesley” sense of the word, come with a focus and maturity that is conscious, decisive and thoughtful. And while many of us may be polite, we are not “ladies” either; plagued by societal norms of politeness and delicacy. No, being a Wellesley Woman was a statement that we would not be demeaned. I had no idea how helpful becoming a strong “woman” would be when I entered the incredibly competitive (and often demeaning) male-dominated work world. But it was.

What I Thought vs. What I Looked Like

Coming out of high school, I had been thought of as a boy-crazy, “pretty girl” rather than someone who was smart, kind and worked hard although I was indeed all of those things. I hadn’t really thought about the distinction nor did I have confidence in my ability to change how I was perceived. When I got to Wellesley, being pretty or stylish had very little value compared with what I thought, what I initiated and what I led.

This re-frame — finding my place among a group of women — was crucial in the development of my sense of self, my value system and my desire to lead. Being among 2,000 impressive women was initially intimidating, and my stress was evident as I battled an eating disorder during my freshman year, struggled to find a group of peers, and learned to study and contribute in classes that were sometimes a stretch for me.

But as I realized that at Wellesley I had real role models to follow and women who were willing to include, mentor and pull me forward, the more I understood the power of our collective strength in coaching and supporting each other. What I had to say became much more important than what I looked like — a realization that helped me reduce the scrutiny I was giving my body and increase the attention I was giving to my mind and to my natural strengths.

By sophomore year, I realized that I had a natural strength in leadership. I might never have ventured into a leadership role in student government had I not been in this environment where there were women ahead of me that I could use as models for finding my voice and speaking my mind. I became Student Bursar (treasurer) in Sophomore year. By the time the second semester of junior year came around, I was in high-gear, ready to run for President of College Government.

Learning to lead

But I learned a key lesson of leadership the hard way — and it wasn’t by leading. I learned that if you don’t have a good sense of yourself, you may fall into traps that lead you to failure. As a “high anxiety” person, I had historically managed my stress by getting my work started and done early. I was a “B+” student because I often sacrificed “quality” for the relief of being “done”. So when I went to run for office, adrenaline pumping, I couldn’t wait to get started. I held a preliminary campaign meeting as soon as I decided to run. But there were rules about the campaign, and I unintentionally held the meeting before the designated campaign period. And as a result, one of my dearest friends and role-models (who was the serving College Government President at the time) had to disqualify me from the race before it even began. It was an embarrassing and devastating experience, but one I learned a lot from.

What I learned was that I need to be aware of my tendency to act quickly rather than think deeply, and knowing this is a pattern for me, I need to check-in with myself on an ongoing basis. I need to make sure that I am not sacrificing “great” for “expedient” and to find other ways to manage my stress.

We all face obstacles like stress, anxiety, and insecurity. But in this case, making a mistake led me to understand myself in a way that would make me become better in the long run.

Feeling empowered to put myself in the ring and to actually run for office taught me another lesson about myself too, and that was, I liked being a leader. It was a natural place for me and as I gained confidence in my natural abilities I was able to look for opportunities to lead both at Wellesley and beyond. By revealing, nurturing and validating my innatenatural strengths, my Wellesley classmates gave me the confidence to put those skills forward in the post-college workplace.

And while it took four career pivots until I found my sweet spot in the workforce, knowing my natural strengths and being conscious of my natural tendencies set me up for success.

Wellesley helped me to know myself.

Whether it was beating bulimia after Freshman year or rising after my “fall” during the college government election to go on and become Senior Class President, learning how to fail and then being lifted by other women has made me a resilient woman who strives to lift other women around me.


Speaker and Writer committed to connecting and unleashing women’s potential, Values-Based Corporate Leader, Social Justice Advocate, Founder of Parlay House.

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Anne Devereux-Mills

Speaker and Writer committed to connecting and unleashing women’s potential, Values-Based Corporate Leader, Social Justice Advocate, Founder of Parlay House.