When Mayor Teresa Tomlinson was a high school senior in suburban Atlanta, like many in her position, she was going back and forth between attending Georgia Tech or the University of Georgia.
Then she surprised everybody when she announced she would go to Sweet Briar College, a small liberal arts school for women in the hills of Virginia.
Tomlinson, who recently received the Distinguished Alumna of the Year award from Sweet Briar, said choosing the smaller school over a large university was one of the most important decisions she's ever made.
"It provided a nurturing learning environment. To a lot of people, going to a larger university is so exciting. They have great athletic departments, great excitement in that sense, a great campus life," she said.
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"But I think Sweet Briar offered a completely different type of environment that was exactly what I needed at that time in my life. That was a broadening of my horizons, building a confidence that anything is possible and a nurturing academic environment."
Tomlinson said she would advise young women considering colleges to keep an open mind and not to follow the crowd.
"Don't make your decision on some preconceived notion of where you think you need to be. Make sure you open your eyes to all the possibilities," Tomlinson said. "I was headed to Georgia Tech for their chemical engineering department, or to University of Georgia for journalism. But then I ended up going to Sweet Briar, which gave me such a wonderful liberal arts background, opened my eyes to the social sciences and to literature, things that I had not been significantly exposed to before."
A large university might be the best fit for some, Tomlinson said. But she urges young women not to be locked in by what others are doing or have done before.
"Had I not taken a broad view toward college and simply followed the crowd of students from my high school or my neighborhood, it wouldn't have been an education that was sculpted to my needs and my potential," she said. "So I hope that students really take a broad look at all the options that are out there for them and pick the one that's the best fit, and not the one that's been predetermined for them just by what other folks have always done."
Mayor Teresa Tomlinson answered the following questions via email.
Why did you choose to attend Sweet Briar College? It was different than anything I had previously experienced. Unlike other colleges, Sweet Briar had small class sizes allowing for an intense but nurturing education experience. Between the high caliber professors and other academic resources, the impressive student body and the beautiful campus, there was really no other college that held a candle to Sweet Briar.
What do you think high school students should consider when deciding which college to attend? They need to consider foremost what is the best fit for them. That may not be the college their best friend or big sister or parents chose. If students will look with an open mind and broaden their search, they will find their "fit," even if their search simply reaffirms the college they assumed they would attend.
What advice do you have for young women preparing for their first year of college? Realize that you have the potential to be anything you want to be, and that college is nothing but a bushel of opportunities for you. Don't squander that opportunity on the small things. Think big. Think great thoughts about your future.
How did you adjust to your first year of college and living away from your family? My family and I are very close. However, I was so ready to go to college -- to spread my wings, if you will -- that I went to Sweet Briar and never looked back. My parents didn't think I would last a month at an all women's college, but it was just the perfect environment. It offered the right balance of academics, opportunities and fun.
What surprised you about the college experience? All of the impressive people. People from different parts of the country, with different life experiences. It broadened my world dramatically from the public high school experience I had growing up. While I certainly had gone to a racially and economically diverse high school, there were few if any that had the breadth of interests or experience as those I met at college. Also, I was surprised at how accepting everyone was. There were very few students who had come from the same high school or same hometown even. That made everyone interested in learning about everyone else fresh -- seeing them for what they are and what they could be as opposed to pigeon holing them in a particular role or interest they held as a younger person back home. It really encouraged the students to blossom into their full potential.
Looking back is there anything you wish you would have done differently? I actually was aware enough to appreciate what an incredible place Sweet Briar was while I was there -- thankfully. I did not take a single day for granted. I realized then that I would treasure that time always.