04/25/2013 04:54 pm ET Updated Jun 25, 2013

Creating Their Own Opportunities


"In addition to the external barriers erected by society, women are hindered by barriers that exist within ourselves. We hold ourselves back in ways both big and small, by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in... My argument is that getting rid of these internal barriers is critical to gaining power." -- Sheryl Sandberg

The view that Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg advocates in her new book, Lean In, has been a matter of considerable debate. But her basic point resonates: Women must take charge of their own futures.

So, how does her message translate for women now in college? First, I would stress that all students today, and particularly women, should seek a broad undergraduate education. An education that encompasses multiple disciplines and perspectives provides the much-needed flexibility to accommodate the constant change inherent in today's workplace. And as women advance in their professions, they will increasingly tap their capabilities for critical thinking, problem-solving, and communication that are cultivated by a wide-ranging education, rather than narrowly focused job skills.

Second, women should plan their futures as though their livelihood really did depend on it. The fact is many women today either remain single or become the chief -- or only -- breadwinner for their families. Early in their college years, they should identify a profession that will allow them to make the most of their personal attributes and talents, and then determine how they can successfully find their way into that field. While in time they may change careers or take time off from paid work, their college education will have given them a solid foundation for growth and advancement.

Here are some more specific steps that will enable today's women undergraduates to attain future leadership positions, along with some examples of how these steps have been accomplished by young women at Albion College, where I serve as president.

  • Network. Develop alliances with individuals -- whether faculty or alumni -- who can advise you on how best to prepare for your intended career. Albion graduate Allie Walker, '08, persuaded our alumnus, Congressman Dave Camp, '77, to take her on as a student intern. That internship led to an offer to work full-time for Camp, now chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.
  • Stand out. Get yourself in front of people -- on campus or on a broader stage -- in ways that will allow you to demonstrate your strengths. Lauren Wysocki, who will graduate from Albion College this spring, was among the college students selected to attend an Economic Summit sponsored this year by the Michigan Governor's Office. She capitalized on this opportunity by accepting an invitation to speak about her professional skills in front of the hundreds of employers gathered there.
  • Show initiative. Actively seek new opportunities -- or create your own. Albion graduate Mallory Brown, '07, took the business know-how she gained in college and has created a successful clothing company, World Clothes Line. But she knew she wanted to do more: Today the company donates one article of clothing for each item purchased from her online store. The donated clothing is then distributed in developing nations around the world.
  • Take risks. Choose experiences that are out of the ordinary to show what you can do and move out of your comfort zone. As a college student, Kristen Wooden, who graduated from Albion in 2009, participated in a research expedition on an island north of the Arctic Circle. That experience eventually led her to a challenging career as an exploration geologist.

The young women I have described here have all been fortunate. Bright and talented, they have had access to excellent educational experiences throughout their lives. Stories similar to theirs could be recounted at many other colleges and universities in America. Because women college graduates in this country have had the privilege of a higher education and because they comprise approximately 61 percent of all recent baccalaureate graduates, as current and future leaders they have increased responsibility for assisting and advocating for the girls and women, both here at home and abroad, who have not had the same advantages. And that should start with ensuring that equal educational opportunities exist for women and men everywhere.

As Sheryl Sandberg so rightly notes in her book, "Conditions for all women will improve when there are more women in leadership roles giving strong and powerful voice to their needs and concerns."