Oakland, CA 1852–2022: Mills College

Dear Mills College,

I’m sad to see you close after 170 years. Attending classes on your campus with a diverse group of women from all over the world my first year of college was important in how I see the world and how I see myself. I’ve written four drafts of a farewell to you, but grief slows my fingers on the keyboard and blurs my eyes. I was 18 when I met you. Sight unseen I had committed to attending, believing a woman’s college would allow me to better academic confidence and focus. That fall my dad and I flew out to San Francisco, rented a car and drove to Oakland. Once we entered the gates of Mills, the wooded campus and the classic Spanish style architecture impressed us right away; white stucco walls with ceramic tile roofs. We wound our way past Mills Hall, which was administrative offices now although once it was the entirety of the college. Over a creek and up a hill Dad drove and we found Ethel Moore, my new Spanish style home. The RA (in red pants next to me below) showed us the dorm room where I would study, listen to music, and sleep. My dad carried my suitcases up, then we hugged goodbye outside. I thought both of us were going to cry. Maybe we did, a little.

Residents of Ethel Moore Hall Photo: Ann Wendt

I underestimated how alone I would feel. All the women I met in the dorm were nice, and we ate our evening meal in the special dorm dining room that night. Three dozen of the eighty residents were first year students. We introduced ourselves at dinner. Soon we were talking and laughing. The RA sat near we new students. We bantered about why we chose a girls’ college. The RA gently corrected that Mills was a women’s college. Did the terminology matter to me? Not right away, but its importance grew for me over the year. We were women. Why say “girls” if that puts us down?

My social education continued at Mills; students were diverse in their ethnicities, orientations, nationalities and religious backgrounds. In conversations with Tiffany, an African American woman in our dorm, I learned that friendship is only the first step. It is important to be an ally in dismantling racism. Likewise, I learned to offer not only friendship, but solidarity and vocal support to women with a different orientation from mine. These friendships were important in forming who I am.

Rebecca’s First Year Photo Photo: mgm photography

My dorm friend from Southern California was key in teaching me about study groups. Three of us “Forever Moores” were in the same Biology class, learning about genetics. In our review, we would ask each other practice questions using flash cards. I was not remembering the answers. When it was my turn, I couldn’t explain the difference between RNA and DNA, or what alleles were. We worked until midnight. I felt like I couldn’t retain any more information. After sleeping on it, we took the test the next morning. I was hoping I’d recall more after our study group and answered the best I could. The results were posted the next afternoon. Amazingly, I had my best score for the class so far! At dinner our study group compared grades. My friends we furious with me. Impossibly, somehow I had managed to score one point higher than they did. That couldn’t be true! The next morning I heard little mice in the hall outside my door. Once I was dressed for the day, I opened the door but couldn’t see out through the layers of toilet paper! That was the funniest prank anyone’s played on me.

Rebecca’s TP covered dorm room door Photo: Ann Wendt

I’ll miss you Mills; your eucalyptus groves, your small classes, your awesome breakfasts, the choir and drama classes, swim team, the fabulous art class, Spanish conversation class, the biology project discovering a bird’s territory by his song, the red eyed fruit fly experiment that flew away, learning about deciduous trees, female solidarity, knowing women can do anything, and the woman that I am. –Rebecca

Mills Hall 1871, Mills College Photo: Rebecca Cuningham

How would you feel if your school or college closed suddenly?

Rebecca Cuningham

35 thoughts on “Oakland, CA 1852–2022: Mills College

  1. Sounds like a very special place? Sorry it is closing. It’s strange how we get attached to places, but we do. Although they are just physical buildings, it’s the people who grace them that change our lives. I went “home” in 2019 to see the factory I spent 20 years in, derelict and empty. It was torn down last year. I really felt lost looking at that empty shell.

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    1. Thank you for your comments, Kathleen. Sounds like you know the college well. I think they plan to make it a leadership institute, but I hope we alumnae can save the college and increase enrollment from the predominantly African American city of Oakland which surrounds it.

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  2. Wow! Becca, Me impresiona la manera en que describes tu experiencia educativa, social y formativa como ser humano que recién empieza a ver un mundo fuera de la protección de los padres. 😊 Què buena experiencia y buena formación! Dulce e utile!!!

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    1. Gracias, Mildred por tus lindos comentarios. Fue tan difícil escribir la carta, por la tristeza que siento. Mills me dio un apoyo increíble para ser mujer activa, no pasiva. Me despertó la justicia social y me dio fondo para la vida creativa. Te aprecio, Mildred por nuestra amistad larga desde Austin. Abrazos, R

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  3. I’d forgotten that you started at a women’s college. I did too, In Maryland, only 2 1/2 hour drive from where my parents were living.
    When I arrived with the Freshmen, 3 of us were assigned to a Junior big sister. I wonder what happened to one of my co-little sisters, but it would take some research to even find her name at the time …

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  4. Our town has been profoundly changed by the closure, some 15 years ago of the college which was part of the campus of a University in another town. It wasn’t as diverse as yours. Inevitably in view of its catchment area. But the energy and diversity it brought in other ways is still sadly missed. At least you had your opportunities where you studied, but it’s sad that the next generation can’t as well.

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    1. Sorry to hear your town lost the University extension earlier in the 2000s. Higher education gives people so many opportunities to work on their career development, meet people and to self actualize. There are Mills graduates in 60 countries. That continuing world sisterhood would be sad to see end.

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  5. Oh, wow. That‘s devastating! Qué pena. I went to a girls‘ high school — and „girls“ really was the appropriate word for us, even if our teachers during our final years used the formal German address corresponding to „usted“ in Spanish to impress upon us that we were growing into adults, with everything that implies. At the time, I didn‘t even necessarily much care for my school, but I came to realize later what an important part of my formative years it had been. It‘s not far from my home, so I pass it quite often, and I now think back to my high school days every single time I pass by that school. I think a little piece of me would die if it were ever forced to close.

    Btw, let me take this opportunity to formally say hello — I‘ve been following your blog for a while now and am very much enjoying the experience!

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    1. Thank you for your comments! I’ve wondered what it would have been like to go to an all female high school. Many of my close friends were guys as it turned out, so I might have missed out there. Yes, it is a real shock to hear Mills will close. Thanks so much for following and I’m happy to hear you are enjoying the posts!

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  6. You were an adorable college student! It’s crazy to believe that colleges would actually close, but at the same time, it’s not unheard of…sorry to hear your alma mater is closing, but the memories you had while there will never fade!

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  7. Rebecca, I am sorry to read about the closing of your college. I enjoyed looking at your photos and reading about some of your special memories there, written in a letter format. I may have missed this detail – why is the school closing?

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  8. A tear came to my eye remembering that day over thirty years ago when I drove away leaving “my little girl” all by herself at Mills. It sounds like it was a great first year of college.

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