I Attended Private All-Girls Catholic School and It's Nothing Like What You Think

It was neither a fascist state nor a 24/7 pillow fight like outsiders tend to imagine.
Publish date:
March 10, 2016
education, private schools, all-girls schools, Single Sex Education

“I’m sorry!”“That sounds awful.”“Did you freak out when you saw a boy?”“Why would you do something like that?”“Oh, it must be a white girl thing. Like on Gossip Girl, right?”

When single-sex education is brought up in conversation, responses certainly vary. Some involve a blank stare or continuous nodding, but others are condescending and even disdainful. Some react as if I’ve just told them I watch Sarah McLachlan ASPCA commercials for fun.

Yes, I attended a private all-girls Catholic high school. Most people will stop reading this article after seeing the title and shaking their heads at a presumably whiny white girl who can’t see past her own privilege. Regardless of how people perceive me, I will always be proud that I graduated from Ursuline Academy of Dallas (UA). I stick by my fourteen-year-old self’s decision to enroll at UA, because that’s where I learned who I did and did not want to become. It’s not as if I couldn’t have learned who I am in a co-ed, public environment, but it was the right decision for me at the right time. In no way am I saying that everyone should attend these type of institutions. I mean, really, where’s the fun in homogeneity?

Caterina N. is a graduate of St. Agnes Academy School of Houston, Texas and a current University of Texas at Austin sophomore. She quips, “Don't feel sorry for me because I went to an all-girls school, I am just fine. In fact, I am who I am because of it.” This happens to be the story for many graduates of single-sex institutions, including all-male schools. My single-sex education was not socially, religiously, ideologically, or demographically oppressive. It was neither a fascist state nor a 24/7 pillow fight like outsiders tend to imagine. My all-girls school was challenging yet inviting, diverse yet unified, and worldly yet traditional. In fact, it never truly felt like school.

The world continues to try to force girls into a mold of what others view as traditionally beautiful, but I really enjoyed that my school provided me a haven where my brain mattered much more than the makeup or clothes I was wearing. College has opened my eyes to how foreign my background must seem to those I meet here at the University of Texas at Austin, just like others’ backgrounds are foreign to me.

Any private school is typically assumed to cater to a fabulously wealthy student body, and all-girls schools are no stranger to that stigma. Yes, the majority of my graduating class was white, but that certainly didn’t make us a homogenous group of 209 girls. From cradle Catholics to Hindus, from Caucasian to Cuban-Mexican-Americans, and from mansion to apartment, we were spread throughout the spectrum. Tuition was anything but cheap, but Ursuline worked to make education attainable for anyone willing to work for it. Our scholarship program is a community-wide effort through events like the Ursuline Fund and Mother-Daughter Bingo. I continuously felt that friendships bridged any wealth disparity that would otherwise separate students.

We took required theology courses about Catholicism, but we followed our lessons with comparisons between Catholic dogmas and those of other religions to gain perspective. We annually celebrated Global Celebration Day during which we attended breakout sessions about global business startups, charities, dance classes, and cooking lessons.

The all-girls environment is open in terms of sexuality, but still has a long way to go. Current senior at Dallas’ The Hockaday School, Walker Tindall ‘16 remarks, “I also think Hockaday could do a bit more for trans[gender] inclusion, as I know I have some trans friends who aren't happy at an all-girls school. Unfortunately trans students might feel more comfortable at a coed school where they aren't forced to conform to a single gender.” Overall, secular institutions continue to lead the way for a more inclusive environment in terms of diverse sexual orientations, but our country maintains need for improvement.

Conservatism is not always key in the private, all-girls environment; my school was established in 1874, but rigidity is not in our nature. Talking to older alums showed me how the atmosphere has not changed from then to now, even though I graduated just two years ago. Ursuline alumna Melanie Telzrow Girard ‘89 recalls, “I found that being in an all female environment eliminated any gender bias towards women's abilities in addition to any fears about speaking out in a classroom environment...I was surprised how FEW of my female classmates did not speak up.” Now a mother to her daughter and son, Melanie says her peers “were so used to males dominating the discussion that they would easily back down or not offer up their ideas. I, however, raised my hand to participate even though 50% of the time I had no clue what I was talking about. There wasn't any other option for me in my mind- I was taught to be loud, be heard!”

A friend of mine from UT attended an all-female high school for her freshman year before transferring to a co-ed private high school to earn her diploma. Nicole Walker attended St. Agnes in Houston, and she recalls that girls “had a lot more confidence in class, beyond being confident that they knew the right answers.” Nicole noticed that her female peers at St. Agnes took pride in being heard and were never afraid of classroom involvement.

At her co-ed private high school, however, Nicole found the environment to be quite different. “It felt like everyone took classes a lot less seriously because they acted uninterested, as if they were afraid to be seen as ‘nerds.’” While she does not attribute this disparity to the mixed gender dynamic, Walker praises the culture at St. Agnes and how it generally felt more relaxed, though the classes were far more challenging. “We spent less energy trying to impress our classmates and more time focused on keeping up in school and forming genuine friendships."

Like any teenage girl feels, I was apprehensive about spending time around my male peers, but I never felt pressured to interact with them or become romantically inclined with one. I preferred to study and volunteer instead of attending parties and social events during my free time like my friends did. On top of that, sporting events were socially useless to me once I joined the dance team. Since we performed at every football and basketball game (the main sporting events at our schools), I wasn’t able to fraternize with the opposite sex as much as I would have liked.

I think my single-sex education gave me a pretty healthy view of males, just like the co-ed public or private worlds do. I think the stigma attached to single-sex education’s effects on social skills can be attributed to media portrayal and the dominance of limited awareness of these institutions in an area. I created a survey to see what others knew or thought they knew about all-girls and all-boys schools. The results were typically negative, as many respondents indicated agreement with stereotypes of these institutions, but on average, roughly a third of respondents indicated that they were unaware of single-sex schools in their hometowns and current places of residence. This means that the same people who indicated negative (and sometimes condemnatory) opinions of single-sex education have had little to no experience with it at all. With that said, 48.6% of respondents perceive single-sex education graduates as socially inept, 6.9% of respondents perceive them as socially adept, and the remaining 54.2% indicated that these students parallel coed school students on social grounds.

Girls can (and likely will) cause trouble regardless of the context, so conflict is not reserved for all-girls schools. Unfortunately, this is a timeless fact. An older Ursuline Academy graduate reflects, “I did find that some girls were petty to others, especially those who weren't really good at standing up for themselves, which I hated watching. Standing up for them ended up getting me ostracized from so-called friends...But I rallied and was backed by some teachers and was an athlete, so I had a variety of friends.”

Her experience is not uncommon. I was a victim of social ostracization myself, and for similar reasons. There will always be instigators in a community, but I am comforted by the presence of girls and faculty who repeatedly come to others’ defense. I hope to continue to carry this standard with me long after retiring my plaid skirts.