Mills alumnae reflect on past, embrace partnership as positive path forward with Northeastern

front gate of mills college
A view of the front gate at Mills College. Photo by Ruby Wallau for Northeastern University

OAKLAND, Calif.—Pat Lee remembers when students at Mills College, a historically all-women’s college founded in 1852, were not allowed to wear shorts to class. 

That was a problem. “It was a time when Bermuda shorts were very common,” Lee said. 

Lee graduated from Mills with a degree in music back in 1957, and is about to celebrate her 65th class reunion. She was the oldest alumna to march at this year’s commencement, carrying a banner reading 1957. 

In her day, Mills was quite different from what you see now: It was largely a residential campus with a tight dorm life, and there were no locks on the doors. At a time when the average age of marriage for a woman was around 20, Lee got married on campus just a week after graduation. 

Since then, she’s seen Mills go through countless changes. For her, the merger with Northeastern is “just one more change, which I hope will be a positive one.”

Lee’s optimism mimics what many Mills alumnae have expressed in the wake of the merger between Northeastern and the historic college. The passionate alumnae are excited to embark on a new chapter in the college’s history, and to continue to work toward Mills’ mission of student care and inclusion in a brand new way.

Lucy Do, a Mills College Alumna, poses for a portrait at Mills College at Northeastern. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

Lucy Do experienced that mission firsthand when she came across a conundrum in her education: She needed to take two classes at once. A member of Mills Class of 1975, Do was born in Vietnam and attended high school in California before attending Mills, where she became one of only two women in her class to get a degree in chemistry.

Like Lee, Do remembers Mills fondly, especially the group dinners in her dorm, where she made lifelong friends. She also got married at the campus chapel, a week before her graduation, and her parents, who had recently been evacuated from Saigon, were able to attend both.

When she talked about what makes Mills special, she emphasized how much care is given to each and every student. When she was a student at Mills, Do had to take a quantitative analysis course to get her chemistry degree. Unfortunately, it conflicted with her swim class. 

“So I went to talk to [quantitative analysis] professor Al Smith,” she said. “Everybody thought he was a curmudgeon.”

Do found the courage to talk to professor Smith about her scheduling conflict. 

“And he said, ‘Well, why do you want to take the swimming class?’ And I said, ‘Because I can’t swim!'” she said. “And he said, ‘Well, that is absolutely more important than my schedule.'” 

Leah Zippert, a Mills College Alumna, poses for a portrait at Mills College at Northeastern. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

To her surprise, Smith changed the course schedule to accommodate her swim class. “Now I can swim,” she said. “I got certified for scuba diving!”

In the same vein, Mills alumnae expressed a feeling of belonging during their time on the campus, regardless of where they came from. “It’s the safest place I’ve ever felt,” said Tina Lee, who was the first person in her family to go to college and graduated from Mills in 2001.

Leah Zippert said her eyes were opened during her time at Mills after being raised in a single-parent home. “We didn’t have very much when I was growing up,” she said, “and Mills really exposed me to a whole lot of things and I developed friendships and connections that have shaped the rest of my life.”

Zippert, who graduated from Mills in 1990, became a leader during her time at the college, helping found an environmental organization, competing on the swim team, and taking part in student government. She got her first job through a Mills contact, and met her husband through two Mills friends. 

“I think it’s fair for me to say that Mills shaped the trajectory of my life,” she said.

A commitment to supporting a diverse student body has always been at the center of Mills’ mission. Natalie Mallinckrodt, who graduated in 1971, was a fashion major; she designed costumes for the campus theater and did a fashion show for her senior project. She remembers that, during her time at Mills, she had a friend who was from Afghanistan, and another from Saudi Arabia who drove a Mercedes and brought an interior designer with her to decorate her dorm room.

“The beauty of it was, at Mills, you can just be yourself,” said Jillian Mosley. 

Mosley dropped out of high school her senior year, but decided to get her degree at Mills in her 40s, and now works at Mills while she pursues her master’s degree in educational leadership there. 

Not only has the Mills environment been welcoming, Mosley said, but she also sees a commitment to social justice in the curriculum, especially when it comes to discussions of race and bias.

“I’m learning how to confront and be in dialogue and really be in an exchange, talking about these really important concepts,” she said. “What I’m hoping for is that as we move forward, that the level of discourse and intense self-reflection and understanding of who we are, how we are connected to one another and what that means, that that’s what we’re going to be offering to all these students.”

When asked what Mills did for their lives, alumnae talked about all this and more—from the friendships they built, to the rich history of the school, to the 135-acre campus.

It’s not surprising, then, that those who are passionate about Mills and preserving its legacy were shocked when it was announced last year that the college would be shut down due to financial issues. When Northeastern stepped in to merge with Mills, questions abounded over whether Mills would be able to retain its unique heritage, especially since it would no longer be solely a women’s college.

Tina Lee, a double graduate of Mills college and a member of the inaugural MBA program class as well as a former trustee, poses for a portrait in Oakland at her alma mater. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

For her part, Do is hopeful. “We’re going to lose the women’s college part of it,” Do said. “But there is so much more to gain, so many more opportunities around the world for the students.”

Tina Lee, meanwhile, compares the merger to a moment in her own life. In 2013, after struggling to learn to code as a mother of two, Lee founded a nonprofit called MotherCoders, whose mission is “growing the tech talent pool by helping women with kids gain the skills, knowledge, and connections they need to thrive in today’s digital economy.”

Lee was passionate about the work, but eventually, the nonprofit ran out of money. She had to deal with the reality that in order for her dream to stay alive, she would have to hand it over to another company. As difficult as it was, she says, making MotherCoders into the nonprofit arm of the for-profit BitWise Industries, where she is the director of special projects, was the right way to propel the MotherCoders mission forward.

She sees Mills in a similar light. MotherCoders, she said, was a tactic to accomplish a mission, and now is the time for new tactics. “1852 was a long time ago,” she said. Now, in 2022, “How can we reimagine what empowering women looks like?” The merger, she said, is a way for Mills to do that.

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