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Nonbinary students push for changes to Hollins University's admissions policies

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Women's colleges are adapting their admissions policies to reflect a shift in the way that people understand gender. Some students identify as transgender or nonbinary, not exclusively male or female. So who belongs at a women's college? We have an encore presentation of this story by NPR's Melissa Block from Hollins University in Southwest Virginia.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

MELISSA BLOCK: If you go to Hollins, you can bring your own horse with you. The school is well known for its equestrian team. I find first-year student Diana Combs brushing down her ride in the campus stable. The equine program was a big draw for her, and that Hollins is a historically women's college is a plus.

DIANA COMBS: It just feels safer overall, especially we have no frats on here, which is a lot better. So yeah, horses and all women. Yeah.

BLOCK: But that all-women idea can be complicated for students who don't see themselves that way, like Kendall Sanders, a Hollins senior from Little Rock who's nonbinary.

KENDALL SANDERS: I think it honestly started maybe my - the end of my freshman year. I was just thinking, and I was like, I don't think I care about being a girl.

BLOCK: Which for Sanders, coming from the Bible Belt, was a pretty big deal.

SANDERS: I really just want to escape the binary. I don't want to spend my life trying to prove that I am one gender. I want to wake up, put on some clothes, go out into my day. If you perceive me as one gender, that's OK, too. But for me, it just is what it is.

BLOCK: Here's how Hollins' latest admissions policy works. If you're a transgender woman, you can apply. If you're a trans man, no. But if you transitioned to male after you get to Hollins, you can stay. And that's an important shift. Before 2019, if you transitioned while at Hollins, you'd have to transfer out. Finally, if you're nonbinary, Hollins says no, your application will not be accepted. To be admitted, you have to, quote, "consistently live and identify as a woman," and that's messed up, says sophomore Willow Seymour, who is genderqueer.

WILLOW SEYMOUR: Personally, I think it's pretty offensive to exclude nonbinary people. I know that historically it's a women's college, but a lot of people see it as, like, a refuge from patriarchal structures, and nonbinary people deserve to be as much a part of that as anyone else.

(SOUNDBITE OF CARILLON RINGING)

BLOCK: The Hollins chapel carillon rings out across campus each day at noon. This is a tightknit community, small, just over 700 undergrads, with a proud history, educating women in Virginia going back to 1842. Its reputation as a finishing school for Southern debutantes is long gone. The writer Annie Dillard went here. So did photographer Sally Mann. A promotional school slogan says, women who are going places start at Hollins.

JAIYA MCMILLAN: And I think that's something that should be phased out because there are so many people here who are going places who are not just women, you know?

BLOCK: That's Jaiya McMillan, a Hollins junior, vice president of the student government. She's wearing a wishbone charm on her necklace, a totem of how lucky she feels to be at Hollins. Her mother went here too - class of 1995.

MCMILLAN: I know that she talks about it as a women's college, and there are still professors here who only use she/her pronouns when talking about the student body, which obviously I don't think really fits what Hollins looks like anymore.

BLOCK: McMillan, who is cisgender, says Hollins should be a place that welcomes all nonbinary and transgender students, too.

MCMILLAN: Absolutely, absolutely. I think maybe a school with everything under the sun, except for cis men.

BLOCK: So no cisgender men.

MCMILLAN: No, thank you (laughter).

BLOCK: If it were up to Hollins professor LeeRay Costa, the college would admit nonbinary students - anyone, she says, whose gender makes them marginalized in society. Costa has taught at Hollins for 20 years, has seen the name of her department change from women's studies to gender and women's studies, has seen the number of nonbinary students grow, especially within the last five years or so.

LEERAY COSTA: We see a lot more fluidity, so people moving along a spectrum and not feeling like they have to be fixed in one place and exploring.

BLOCK: As to the fear that something will get lost or diluted if the door to women's colleges is opened too wide...

COSTA: That question is - to me, it's rooted in this either-or binary of, like, it's either for women or it's not for them. And I reject that binary. I don't think it needs to be an either-or kind of question.

EM MILLER: Hi, my name is Em Miller. I use they/them pronouns. I am a senior, and I am from Amelia, Va.

BLOCK: Miller will often serve as a sounding board for younger students who want to try out new pronouns or a new name.

MILLER: There's kind of this, like, wading pool area where you kind of just dip your toes in, and you see how you feel about it and then you go further.

BLOCK: Miller was a sophomore when the Hollins Board of Trustees updated its admissions policy in 2019, adding the new language that specifically excludes nonbinary applicants. Miller says once you're on campus, Hollins feels inclusive. Students and faculty embrace gender diversity. But there's a disconnect with the admissions policy, and that doesn't sit well.

MILLER: It makes me feel ignored, and it almost feels like I'm battling against what Hollins Board of Trustees has kind of placed as this looming cloud over students at Hollins.

BLOCK: I put that concern to the chair of Hollins' board, Alexandra Trower.

ALEXANDRA TROWER: I have a lot of compassion and empathy for those feelings, but we are a women's institution.

BLOCK: Not just a historically women's college, Trower says, but a present women's college - important, she says, at a time when women have still not achieved equity.

TROWER: I very much appreciate that students may have a different definition or desire to have us be in a different place. But we're very clear and open about what our mission is. And people have a choice about where they go to university.

BLOCK: Trower says it's possible the board's thinking on this will evolve. That's the message, too, from Hollins' new president, Mary Dana Hinton.

MARY DANA HINTON: You've heard students say that they feel unseen or invisible, and that's really hard. And I don't think it's unexpected that we will continue to listen and learn and reassess the policy as needed.

BLOCK: Overshadowing this discussion is the fact that a dozen historically women's colleges have either closed or gone coed in the last seven years, faced with declining enrollment or financial trouble, each school trying to figure out how to adapt in a more genderfluid world. Melissa Block, NPR News, Roanoke, Va.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAURA MISCH'S "CLIMB") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.