6 Things I Would Tell My Freshman Self About Being a Feminist in College
1. Join a feminist club
In high school I was extremely shy, and my social anxiety deterred me from joining any clubs or groups. I made a promise to myself that once I started college I would join at least one club as a way to meet more people and hopefully make some friends with people I had something in common with. Of course, as a blossoming feminist, I felt most comfortable joining the feminist club we had on campus. I attended my first meeting with a friend I had recently made who was an intended women and gender studies major, and I realized immediately that I had found "my people". While it took me a few meetings to actually speak up and share my ideas, I was incredibly excited to hear that other people were thinking about and talking about the same things I was. These people were wildly diverse in their histories, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and even their exposure to feminist thought (the knowledge of feminism amongst the members ranged from women and gender studies majors to people who were still unsure as to what the term "feminism" even encompassed). Furthermore, the discussions we had challenged my previous notions of feminism and other social issues, and even reshaped my ideas and viewpoints on various topics.
2. Regardless of your intended major, take a WGS 101 class
I am a rising sophomore and still have basically no idea what I want to major in--I had been telling people that I am a "prospective women and gender studies major", but I wasn't really sure what that would mean for me. Nonetheless, after I fulfilled my generic first semester-freshman year requirements, I was eager to sign up for my first women and gender studies class, WGS 101. At my tiny, primarily-progressive thinking liberal arts school, a WGS 101 class was highly sought after, and the class drew nearly 40 people (large for my very cozy school of 2,500). The class was the WGS-equivalent to an English-classics course-I was introduced to the core-literature of feminism up to the fourth (and current) wave. My teacher, thankfully, was no old-school white feminist: she covered the basics of intersectionality and inclusivity that definitive of current-day feminism. This class not only provided me with basic knowledge of feminist theory, but made me realize that a small liberal arts school is perhaps one of the best environments to discuss feminism and social issues because it fosters deep, interpersonal conversations amongst a group of diverse but equally eager-to-learn people. Whether I actually come out of college as a WGS major or not, I still feel that any WGS class is deeply valuable, and I think it should be so for everyone, regardless of their major or exposure to feminist thought.
3. Keep talking, never stop listening
Although I attended high school in the ultra-progressive, intellectual bubble that is Berkeley, California, I still found it hard to speak out against misogynistic, racist, or otherwise oppressive attitudes without being dismissed or actively shut down by my peers ("what are you, a feminist?!"). While I have found a great deal of incredibly thoughtful, like-minded people at college (I do live in the Feminist Initiative dorm on campus, after all), I realized I was always going to hear distressing or frustrating comments and opinions during my conversations in the classroom and on campus. However, prior to college I did not have the vocabulary or knowledge to engage in a constructive conversation with someone whose views differed from mine, nor did I have the skills to make someone possibly reconsider or reflect upon their potentially closed-minded views on an issue. Through my stimulating conversations with people both within my feminist/progressive "bubble" and outside of it, I was able to truly come to voice (thanks, bell hooks!) and apply my knowledge to fortify my arguments and conversations with a wide range of people. Of course, attending a school with an average class size of 15 people provided an excellent platform for these types of conversations. Strengthening oneself as a critical and progressive thinker, speaker and listener is like training as a pro-athlete: your work is never done, and you can bet there's some part of you that has never been challenged that needs some work (in other words: being a feminist should count as a sport).
4. When you come home, you'll notice how much you've learned, and you may be rolling your eyes at a lot of what your old friends say
I don't think I realized how much I grew as a thinker and a feminist until I came home for the first time for winter break and saw my old high school friends and acquaintances, many of whom were a year younger than me and were now seniors in high school. Of course it's pretty common for people to notice they never had much in common with their home town friends after getting to college. Not only did I realize most people no longer shared my interests or wanted to talk about the same things, but I came to find that my entire philosophy differed greatly from theirs. When asked what I was thinking about majoring in by male friends or classmates, the term "women and gender studies" was often met with a scoff or comments like "oh...so do you like, hate men or something?". I tried not to launch into full-on rants when I heard derogatory comments from my male classmates about girls we knew or even the use of racial or misogynistic slurs, because I knew most people were not interested in having conversations that challenged their notions of race and gender. It wasn't that I thought everyone around me was stupid or that I had become pretentious--most of my high school friends are very smart, kind people--I just began to notice a lot of problematic discrepancies in terms of the culture I had left behind at home and the new culture I found myself in at school.
5. Read, read, and keep reading
Whether it's reading beyond your assigned reading in your WGS class or taking the time to look at an article about a recent social issue or topic, exposure to literature from diverse sources is incredibly important. If you're as geeky as me and my friends, you might even get in the habit of sending a controversial or interesting article regarding a social issue and discussing it over text. I can't begin to count the number of times my fellow-feminist friends and I have started off with one stance on an issue and, by the end of a conversation in a group-text or over food in the dining hall, have come to a completely different conclusion. One thing I cannot stress enough is the importance of reading literature from authors of various backgrounds, and to also continue to have conversations with equally diverse people. One cannot only discuss issues with people who share the same cultural experience as you, or who agree with you on nearly every issue, because you'll never know where your thinking might be problematic or otherwise limited.
6. And perhaps most importantly...
Don't be afraid to speak your mind, because college is one of the few places you will encounter in your life where people--both peers and adults--will want to hear what you have to say. I know I will be taking advantage of that for the next three years to come.