Each time the study is cited, its words take on solidity, like the inscription on a classroom desk whose pencil tracks have deepened with each tracing: Boston College women end their college years less confident than when they started them. It’s simultaneously a warning and a self-fulfilling prophecy for many female students.
But look up, beyond the surface of the desk, and you’ll see self-assured women at the heads of classrooms and offices across campus. How did they become women who at least appear proud, established, and in charge? And what do they have to teach undergraduate women who struggle to find a sense of self-worth they can truly stand on?
Several female faculty members at Boston College shared with The Gavel what it is that fuels their sense of self-worth, and how that has evolved since they were undergraduate women.
Director, Women’s Center
When she was in college, Katie Dalton felt worthy when she was fitting in. That meant looking and acting just like everyone else. And ironically, fitting in also meant staying away from the Women’s Center, which at the time was at the fringes of Boston College’s campus culture.
“I never came into the Women’s Center as an undergrad because I felt there would have been a huge level of discomfort in not knowing or not being on the inside,” she says. “I don’t think it’s mainstream now, but it was even further from mainstream then; if I wanted to feel like a conformist, this was the last place to achieve it.”
Today Dalton stands far out of the crowd as one of the most innovative, progressive, and beloved administrators at BC. Hundreds of students orbit through the solar system of affirmation and empowerment that she directs, whether it be through mentorship programs, the Women’s Center sponsored Women’s Summit, or relaxed conversation nights.
Her success at BC seems largely undisputed, yet Dalton says her sense of self-worth is hardly stable. “I definitely am motivated by appreciation,” she says. “I feel like I did a good job if there’s a level of appreciation.”
In many ways, this makes her an especially receptive leader—one who’s concerned with how her work on campus is perceived by those she hopes to affect. For instance, when she was met with criticism that the Women’s Center was primarily a space for white feminism, Dalton made it an explicit goal to expand the Center’s inclusivity towards students whose identities aren’t in the majority at BC.
But Dalton also worries that her need for sustenance in the form of positive feedback can be self-indulgent. “In order to feel successful, I need to feel that I made a difference,” she says. “With the people I’m working with it should be selfless leadership. But I need to feel there is a result.” Yet Dalton’s personal pursuit for impact and positive feedback in many ways propels the Women’s Center forward and preserves its receptiveness to student input.
As to how she transitioned from a young woman who wanted to blend in to the head of the very Center she avoided, Dalton says it had to do with moving from a place of trying to completely avoid discomfort to a place of recognizing that in many instances, discomfort meant growth. And that ultimately, total belonging wasn’t as protective as she had once believed.
“What do you get when you belong?” she asked herself. “Are you totally safe from external forces? Is everything better if you completely belong?”
The short answer: No.
Professor, African and African Diaspora Studies and Romance Languages
Having been raised in the Catholic faith, Professor Jean-Charles understood at an early age that the foundation for her self-worth was her relationship with God.
However, as the adored youngest child in a Haitian immigrant family, Professor Jean-Charles was “always lauded for [her] accomplishments and was taught to wear them on the outside.” Her parents cherished their daughter’s prestigious resumé, headlined by degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard, and were exultant when Jean-Charles earned tenure at Boston College.
At moments like this, despite her fundamental belief that her self-worth came from God, external validation made it tempting for Jean-Charles to attribute her successes to her own worldly competence.
Years of glowing course reviews from students were especially convincing in swaying Jean-Charles’ self-worth towards external factors. That is, until her fourth year at BC when Jean-Charles was blindsided by her first negative teaching evaluation. “I was devastated,” she recalls. She turned to her husband for affirmation and help icing her bruised confidence.
“The thing is, when you got the good [reviews] you felt like it was about you,” he told her, “and when you got a bad one, you felt like it was about you.” At that moment, Jean-Charles recognized how easy it was to equate fleeting successes with feelings of worth. She pulled herself up and took this moment of disappointment as a reminder: “I need to put my worth in what God thinks of me.”
Jean-Charles considered the areas in her life in which ‘success’ had begun to rely on receiving positive feedback from others. Instead of seeking external validation, Jean-Charles renewed her commitment to doing what she believed to be good, just, and kind, independent of what others thought of her.
Jean-Charles also took the opportunity to reconsider her objective as a teacher. During her years of doctorate study, Jean-Charles worked as a teaching assistant in a living-and-learning community in which her door was open to any student who wanted to share a meal or chat. The venue was casual and friendly, yet Jean-Charles remembers her students were surprised whenever she asked them about anything other than their accomplishments.
Jean-Charles says that remembering her Harvard students re-centered her philosophy of affirming her BC students not as writers or thinkers, but as God’s creations.
“You can bring out so much more in students by affirming them and loving them as humans,” she says. “What resonates more and stays with them is the affirmation just for being.”
By liberating herself of a self-worth measured by accomplishments and attributing her successes to God, Jean-Charles granted her students permission to do the same. She encouraged them to value themselves for their personhood and not because they were accomplished.
The self-worth Jean-Charles feels is also intimately linked to her identity as a woman of color. “As a black person, and as a black woman, I have to value myself so much because I live in a society that doesn’t necessarily value me,” she says. By grounding herself in her intersectional identity, Jean-Charles pulls from the splendor of Haitian culture, the manifestos of black feminists, and her parents’ affirmations that her life matters when she understands her individual self-worth. “Celebrating yourself, and that sense of affirmation—that is very much rooted for me in race and gender.”
Professor, MCAS Honors Program
For a period of time when her kids were young, Professor Michalczyk took pride in being the Queen of the Craft Fair.
To be sure, she was also completing her doctoral work at Harvard and teaching part-time. But coordinating the elementary school craft fair was an important part of the juggling act. In moments spent volunteering at her kids’ school, being a superb mom filled Michalczyk with profound feelings of self-worth.
So when another volunteer mom vocalized her surprise that Michalczyk bothered putting any of her energy into elementary school activities, Michalczyk was incredulous.
“She couldn’t understand,” Michalczyk reflects. “She lived in a world where either you’re an academic, or you’re a mother or a housewife. But that’s B.S.! We’re many things! Our creativity, our intelligence, and our passion for others has to evolve.”
Michalczyk’s self-worth is generously scattered in a hundred different disciplines: cooking, gardening, sewing, teaching, making films, and of course, the quality of her relationships with students.
“For me, personally, it’s the interdisciplinary approach that I’ve chosen in my career path,” she says. “I think that’s also my life.”
However, Michalczyk is quick to dispel the illusion that women should be superheroes—balancing all their obligations and interests and performing each to perfection. Placing personal life, family, hobbies and work all in distinct silos creates the expectation that each of these categories must be successful, independent of the others.
However, when a woman merges all these aspects, she gives herself permission to say, “I’m all of these things, but sometimes I’m able to do one of them better.” She becomes a full woman.
Michalczyk is distinctly aware of the pressure her undergraduate women face to have ambitious and fulfilling careers, hobbies that bring them joy, sparkling romantic relationships, and quality time with their families. She encourages them to aspire to all of those things, with one disclaimer: “You can have most of it, but not at the same time.”
In her own life, Michalczyk’s solution was not to cut loose any of her goals. Rather, she established an understanding that at some times in her life, self-worth would primarily be about succeeding in her career, but at others, it might focus onto her husband or her children.
“The [career] fulfillment doesn’t disappear. You don’t lose who you are and your sense of creativity if you take a break from your career or you take a break from your family,” she urges.
Self-worth can get up and move; it can find a new home. “And women are still struggling with that.”