NORTHAMPTON, MASS. — Philip Skemer knew he wanted to go on an exchange during his junior year, but wasn't sure where. "How about enrolling at Smith College?" some friends joked. The next day, he submitted his application to study at the women's school, home to 2,500 female undergraduates.
"This was an opportunity that not everyone has," he says of studying at the Northampton, Mass., college.
For many students, taking advantage of study abroad or exchange programs is a way to experience foreign culture or sample another slice of college life. For men who study at women's colleges, it is virtually a way to do both.
Mr. Skemer and Bill Mosher, students at Pomona College outside of Los Angeles, both took advantage of their school's exchange program with Smith. And despite ups and downs, last semester was an eye-opening immersion -one only a few men choose to take at Smith each year.
Skemer, a New Jersey native, chose Smith because of its size, proximity to other colleges in western Massachusetts, and its strong geology department. The women's college aspect was just an added feature, although he concedes that most people do think of coming to Smith as a way to pick up women.
What he learned from being part of a community for women was more important than what he learned in the classroom, he says. "I didn't bother to think too much about the potential problems - that it might be intimidating to be one male in a school for all women," he says. "I've learned a tremendous amount. I'm not the same person I was a semester ago."
But his newfound insight did not come easily. "My first day of classes was really quite an unhappy day," he recalls. As students arrived for the oceanography lecture, he noticed there was a perimeter of empty seats around him. "The room was full except for the circle of seats surrounding me. No one was willing to sit next to me. No one smiled or made eye contact. It was as if I was invisible."
He remembers the "surreal feeling" of staff at the school clinic not believing he was a student. The campus police were given his photo so his perpetual presence would not seem suspicious. After a few weeks of adjustment, he began to adapt.
Although he had taken classes at Scripps College, a women's school where Pomona students can cross-register, Skemer says his Smith experience was much more intense. It taught him more about how women interact and communicate with one another.
By being integrated into conversations and social situations with women all the time, Skemer found that he "had to be much more accommodating with people and focus more on communicating emotions and feelings. I'll be better able to deal with relationships in the future because I know how women expect you to deal with things."
For his part, Bill Mosher, a philosophy major from Des Moines, Iowa, expected that the Smith experience would provide great conversation for law school and job interviews. But his perspective is quite different from Skemer's.
As an anomaly on campus, Mr. Mosher spent a lot of time explaining himself. And because feminist issues pervade academic and social life, he sometimes felt a sense of alienation by virtue of being male - and therefore an outsider.
"I'm seen as automatically part of the overall male institution. I often felt like I had to take sides. The view seems to be that if you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem, so I'm forced into a reactionary position," he says.
Skemer says classroom dynamics weren't out of the ordinary, but being a minority voice made his perspective shift. "There was an interesting way I was targeted by my professor simply because I was naturally the focal point of the class. As a white male, I was not used to feeling like I stood out," he explains.
Philosophy professor Barry Stuart, who has taught at Smith since 1967, agrees that the occasional male student cross-registered from nearby Amherst College, the University of Massachusetts, or Hampshire College doesn't change class dynamics. "I don't think it makes much difference when there is just one male in the class. There's no danger in them taking over the class," he says.
Though Skemer and Mosher were full-time students, they did not have the option of student housing and lived in off-campus apartments. That meant they had to fend for themselves regarding food, e-mail and telephone hook-up - things that are arranged for most Smith students.
"There's more bureaucracy to deal with. You'd think if the college is going to accept male students, they should accommodate them," Mosher points out. Though his feelings are mixed and he hasn't come to a consensus on women's issues, he says, "Being here has given me food for thought. It's been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."
"It's interesting to feel like the minority for a change," Skemer observes. "You gain a lot of respect and understanding for people who do similar things every day."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society