As my college career draws to a close, I’ve spent some time reflecting on my experiences here. Looking back at the sheer volume of work I’ve done, the new things I’ve tried and the amount I’ve grown as a person over the past four years is simultaneously amazing and overwhelming. I’m proud of the things I’ve accomplished as a University of Michigan undergraduate, largely because they reflect the love I felt for (most of) the classes I took and activities I participated in.

But, at this point during my senior year of high school, I envisioned myself spending my Wednesday nights partying with fraternity men, not attending an informational session about graduate school fellowships and then coming home to write this column.

It’s not that I didn’t care about school, or really even that I was really very interested in partying (or fraternity men for that matter). Rather, it was just what I thought people were supposed to do in college. Most of the images I had seen of college — both on older friends’ social media accounts and in popular culture — involved stylish blonde women either wrapped around tall, tan men or huddled in massive groups of women laughing in Instagram-worthy places. I imagined college through rose-tinted lenses adorned with pearls and bows. I didn’t realize that the ideas I had developed about how college women were “supposed” to look and act were not only unrealistic but, if left unchecked, could be detrimental to my long-term goals.

Fortunately, that changed shortly after I arrived at the University. Older students on the Daily staff and in other student organizations during my first semester helped me get involved on campus in organizations that led me to discover deeper interests in things I ended up liking far more than the superficial. They gave me the courage to share my thoughts and opinions with the rest of campus through the Daily — something I’ve been doing ever since. In doing so, they taught me to value my own voice and to take myself seriously as someone who deserves to be heard.

I did end up joining a sorority as a sophomore — when I had personally matured enough and learned enough about myself and my personal priorities to pick an organization with ideals and women I respected, rather than just an aesthetically pleasing Tumblr page or an impressive social schedule. Through my sorority, I gained a community of women who support me when I need it and respect me for who I am.

Too frequently, we’re encouraged to be pretty faces for Instagram posts instead of strong people with the ability to make a real impact. Though these things aren’t mutually exclusive, living up to these outrageous standards impedes our efforts to excel in school and pursue the things we’re passionate about. In the workplace, especially in male-dominated fields, these pressures only intensify.

Yet, with the support of older students willing to act as my mentors, I learned to navigate the pressures and expectations of women in college and, later, in office environments. Many of these women were busy themselves, but still took the time to serve as resources for me as I began to get involved on campus, search for internships and apply to my current college, the Ford School of Public Policy.

At my internship this past summer, management-level female employees made an effort to mentor and advocate for lower-level female employees, including the interns. They helped me feel welcome at work, encouraged me to share my ideas and opinions in meetings and gave me opportunities to work on incredible projects.

Women face challenges at school and work that men often don’t, such as wage gaps and not being taken as seriously as their male counterparts. Big picture: building a society where women have the full opportunity to contribute all they can to our economy and government will require that we remove social, legal and economic barriers for women pursuing educational and occupational opportunities. Greater female representation in every arena — from government to engineering — can help make that happen. As it does, all women become better off.

But first, we need to help each other get there. From challenging the stereotypes that hold women back, to serving as resources for other women, to simply being real and honest with our friends and on social media, we can help make it easier for women to deploy their talents and efforts to improve society as a whole.  

Victoria Noble can be reached at vjnoble@umich.edu.

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