Reshaping the Landscape, One Student at a Time

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by Kirk Beldon Jackson

Carmen Twillie Ambar knows that some people think women’s colleges are obsolete.

But Ambar, president of Cedar Crest College for Women in Allentown, Pa., who formerly led Rutgers University’s Douglass College, says, “they are now more relevant than they’ve ever been.”

Women’s colleges continue to thrive because female students seek out women’s education, thinking they’ll have more leadership opportunities and more support of their goals from faculty and peers, she explains.

Ambar, the first Black woman to ever lead the 141-year-old school, adds that such opportunities inherently benefit women of color, providing them with “another way of overcoming the barriers that they face.”

recently told students at Cedar Crest that her goal will be to give them a more global view through study abroad, linkages with foreign colleges, an international focus in school curriculum, and the use of campus centers and residential houses that focus on cultural and topical global issues. “Our goal will be to reshape the global landscape, one Cedar Crest student at a time,” she said then.

The Little Rock, Ark., native says her priorities are rooted in her parents’ experiences seeking education in a segregated environment.

“They were the ones who first taught me the relationship between education and, if you have access to it, its transformational nature and limitless possibilities,”

Ambar says. Ambar received her first taste of women’s education vicariously through her mother, Gwendolyn Twillie, who chaired the University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s Department of Theatre and Dance after earning a doctorate in dance and related arts from Texas Woman’s University in Denton, Texas.

The mother of 18-month-old triplets, Ambar says her mother’s experience taught her that a woman can hold down a high-powered career and raise a family at the same time, provided she has help.

A Georgetown University undergraduate, Ambar simultaneously earned a law degree from Columbia and a master’s in public affairs from Princeton University through a joint four-year program. After a stint as a New York City assistant corporate counsel, she became an administrator at Princeton in 1998, eventually becoming assistant dean for graduate education.

Upon arriving at Douglass, she expanded the school’s “global village” program, extending it beyond a focus on culture and language to address issues. Students studied everything from human rights to sexual slavery of women to conflicts in the Middle East, with travel abroad becoming a key learning tool, recalls Kimberly Owens, director of the Douglass Recruitment Office. The expansion increased diversity at the school, Owens says.

At Cedar Crest, which is 6.7 percent Hispanic, 5.9 percent Black, just under 2 percent Asian/Pacific Islander and 1 percent American Indian, Ambar says she will look at search committees to improve faculty diversity and increased scholarship money to recruit a more diverse student body.

Overall, she says schools need to pay attention to diversity and women’s education. “I believe that the institutions that get that right over the next 10 years will be the most sought-after universities in the country,” she says.

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