Forty-one years ago, Sue-Jean Lee Suettinger ’70 and eight female classmates — who all had been students in Princeton’s Critical Language Program — became the University’s first undergraduate alumnae. In April, seven of the nine returned to Old Nassau for a history-making conference: “She Roars: Celebrating Women at Princeton.”
“Who I am today has been so influenced by Princeton ,” said Suettinger, sitting with several classmates at the front of McCosh 50 after a panel discussion about the female undergraduate experience through the decades. The conference was “an event I couldn’t miss,” she said.
The four-day celebration, from April 28 to May 1, attracted about 1,400 women — 5 percent of all living Princeton alumnae — some of whom flew in from as far away as California and Croatia. Alumnae from every undergraduate class from 1970 to 2010 and from the graduate school, as well as current students, participated in the conference, said Margaret Miller ’80, the assistant vice president for Alumni Affairs.
Held one month before Reunions, “She Roars” celebrated all Princeton women: the pioneering students and those who came later, librarians who mentored them, female Undergraduate Student Government and class presidents, star athletes and campus activists. The weekend, which was planned with the help of 12 focus groups of alumnae around the country, also featured panel discussions and lectures by prominent graduates in fields including education, business, and the law. Among the speakers were novelist Jodi Picoult ’87, Avon Products CEO Andrea Jung ’79, Environmental Protection Agency head Lisa Jackson *86, and Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp ’89. A highlight was the warm, humorous conversation between Associate Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor ’76 and President Tilghman (see p. 38).
The gathering had a festive, friendly feel. Many of the panels and talks dealt with personal topics: difficulties balancing career and family, parenting, and the importance of mentoring other women. Suzanne Lu *97 said, “It’s exciting to celebrate the women who have been at Princeton.” But like others, she noted that she was most interested in hearing about the personal experiences of fellow alumnae.
Throughout the weekend, women shared their stories at panels, breakout discussions, or while mingling over cupcakes in the McCosh courtyard. Alumnae who experienced the first few years of coeducation told younger generations what it was like to attend a university with a 20-to-1 male-to-female ratio, when there were few women classmates or professors to offer support.
The conversation went both ways, as a panel of undergraduate and graduate students described life on campus in 2011, from dating to activism. Students on that panel asked alumnae to remain engaged with the campus community. At the same time, many graduates were looking for opportunities to mentor younger people, said lawyer and writer Crystal Nix Hines ’85, a Princeton trustee. “I think there’s a match there, and I think there are a lot of opportunities for alumni to engage with students that will be enriching for both sides,” she said. “This is a great first step in this direction.”
The conference seemed to tap a desire for connection among multiple generations of Princeton women, who share not only an alma mater, but expectations and challenges. Attendees found many opportunities to meet their fellow alumnae and to network professionally. At the “speed networking” events sponsored by the Career Services office, for example, more than 100 alumnae, business cards at their sides, sat in rows in the atrium of Icahn Laboratory, speaking with each other for three minutes at a time.
“We’re so hungry for these opportunities to network,” said Meghan Muntean ’06, an entrepreneur who has organized similar events for women in San Francisco. “To do this on a massive scale back here at Princeton is fantastic.”
As the conference drew to a close, many remarked that they had become part of a cohesive community of women who all felt a connection “in the history that they’ve made,” Suettinger said.
“It turned out to be a spectacular bonding experience that we hadn’t realized we wanted so badly,” said journalist Lisa Belkin ’82, who led a discussion about balancing family and career in front of a capacity crowd in McCosh 50. After the talk by Belkin, who authors The New York Times’ Motherlode blog, older alumnae stood up to share their own stories of compromise and triumph, and younger alumnae asked for advice on juggling their ambitions and expectations.