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25 Famous Women on Their College Lives

Photo-Illustration: The Cut; Photo: Getty Images

College typically begins with a “move-in” — into a too-small dorm with a complete stranger — and ends with a fancy cap-and-gown ceremony. But it’s between these two turning points that all the real life-changing moments happen: the big lectures, the parties, the tailgates, the friendships, the love, the breakups, the meltdowns. And while some celebrities attend college after years of fame (think Emma Watson and Storm Reid), most were undergrads just like you and me … nobodies with big dreams and shower caddies! All before their years of accolade, making their experience and advice as applicable and relatable now as when they first gave it, if you ask me. Read on for a collection of the good, the bad, and the ugly collegiate memories from notable women including Quinta Brunson, Meryl Streep, Issa Rae, Michelle Obama, and Meghan Markle.

Issa Rae, Stanford University, 2007

“From the moment I started my first class at this school, I started to question whether or not I truly deserved to be here. I thought I was great at calculus until I took Math 42 that first quarter and my entire world collapsed. I was like, ‘Can I even add?! What the fuck was AP Calc for, then?!’ And then a couple of quarters in I learned, like many of you did, I’m sure, ‘Oh! Everybody feels like that here. Everybody worries that they don’t deserve to be here.’ And then I settled in and started to slowly create the spaces that made me comfortable on campus. When I felt the drama department was a little too white to fit into, I was able to get the resources from Stanford to put on multicultural theatrical productions for all four years I was here. And my fellow classmates rallied to support my admittedly very bootleg productions by either being in the shows, helping me behind the scenes, and buying tickets to attend them. After my second year of putting on plays, I felt like I could actually write, direct, and produce … professionally.” — Stanford commencement address, 2021

Quinta Brunson, Temple University

“A big benefit of going to Temple was being dropped in a world of so many different people so quickly. I got to spread my wings in a way that I’m not sure I would’ve been able to at other schools. I got to join improv club and start up on that part of my life. I decided to leave college after about two years. During my sophomore year, I started taking improv classes in Chicago, at the Second City. I had a teacher there — Shelly Gossman — who gave me a scholarship right out of her pocket and said, ‘You need to do comedy for a living.’ So I planned my exit out of Temple, out of Philadelphia, and into my career.” – Philadelphia magazine

Natalie Portman, Harvard University, 2003

“I don’t care if [college] ruins my career. I’d rather be smart than a movie star.” —to the New York Post

Rashida Jones, Harvard University, 1997

“There were things that guys would always say at Harvard, ‘Wellesley to wed, BC to bed, and Harvard girls to talk to.’ So … I was ‘talked to.’” Malibu Magazine

Emma Seligman, New York University, 2017

“My mom really wanted me to go to film school here because it was just such a passion of mine. She just knew there’d be more opportunity for me. When I was applying to universities, I got into NYU and USC, and I was, like, Okay, if I go, then this is the time to make the decision that I’m going to pursue this. No matter what family stuff I talk through in therapy or whatever, nothing will ever trump how much my parents have supported me and how grateful I am for that. So many people in our community who probably made more money than my parents thought it was crazy that they were going to send me to the States, especially NYU, which is one of the most expensive schools. I never felt pressure from my parents — ‘Make sure you make something out of this degree’ — but I felt that pressure, and I think that ultimately helped me. I put that pressure on myself.” – The New Yorker, 2023

Lena Dunham, Oberlin College, 2008

“There I am in my long sleeping-bag coat, shuffling to class twenty minutes late on a Tuesday morning. There I am in what used to be the video store, piling my arms high with VHSs. There I am in the diner, ordering not one but two egg sandwiches. There I am in the gym, riding an Exercycle from the early ‘80s and reading a book called Bosnian Rape. And there I am, drunk on a spring night, yanking my tampon out and hurling it into a bush outside the church. There I am falling in love by the bike rack. There I am slowly realizing my bike has gone missing from the same rack, stolen while I was sleeping. There I am calling my father from the steps of the art museum. There I am half listening to a professor when she tells me I need to start attending class more regularly. And I’m there, too, dragging a torn sofa into the black-box theater with my ‘set designer.’ If I had known how much I would miss these sensations I might have experienced them differently, recognized their shabby glamour, respected the ticking clock that defined this experience. I would have put aside my resentment, dropped my defenses. I might have a basic understanding of European history or economics. More abstractly, I might feel I had truly been somewhere, open and porous and hungry to learn. Because being a student was an enviable identity and one I can only reclaim by attending community college late in life for a bookmaking class or something.” Not That Kind of Girl

Storm Reid, University of Southern California, currently enrolled

“I was feeling very fulfilled as a young person that was working but not necessarily as a young person experiencing young-people things … I get to experience things that people will never get to experience in their lifetime, which I’m cognizant of and I’m very grateful for. But I do want to go to the football games, I do want to go to the parties, I do want to just go hang out with my friends and walk around campus at 3 a.m. sometimes.” – People, 2023

Meghan Markle, Northwestern University, 2003

“Navigating closed-mindedness to the tune of a dorm mate I met my first week at university who asked if my parents were still together. ‘You said your mom is Black and your dad is white, right?’ she said. I smiled meekly, waiting for what could possibly come out of her pursed lips next. “And they’re divorced?’ I nodded. ‘Oh, well that makes sense.’ To this day, I still don’t fully understand what she meant by that, but I understood the implication. And I drew back: I was scared to open this Pandora’s box of discrimination, so I sat stifled, swallowing my voice.” – “I’m More Than an Other,” Elle, 2016

Emma Watson, Brown University, 2014

“It made me so sad when all this stuff came out that I left Brown because I was being bullied. It made no sense at all. Brown has been the opposite. I’ve never even been asked for an autograph on campus. I threw a party for nearly 100 students and not a single person put a photo on Facebook. Anyway, even if I was being given a hard time, I wasn’t going to wuss out of university because someone said ‘Wingardium leviosa’ to me in a corridor, or ‘Ten points for Gryffindor.’ I’ve been dealing with the media since I was nine. If I can’t stand up to a few people giving me a hard time, it’s a bit pathetic, really. I’ve had so much worse.” —the Sunday Times, 2011

Brooke Shields, Princeton University, 1987

“I left after my four years here with great memories and great stories. That’s one of the unique ties that bond us … the commonalities that we all share. Like when your entire academic record gets printed in Life magazine? Right? Or when Japan’s Royal Prince Hirohito wants to meet you and the dean comes, gets you out of a midterm and asks you to go to Prospect House to welcome the prince to campus. Huh? It was crazy then!… My days here were as conventional and normal as I ever could have hoped … and that was because of my peers. … Yes, the Enquirer did try to get nude photos of me in the Mathey College shower. But the students protected me … loyalty is what I always got. And that loyalty, that allegiance, never diminishes.” —Princeton Class Day Remarks, 2011

Martha Stewart, Barnard College, 1963

“Like many of you, I had to work very hard to realize my dream of earning a college degree. I started modeling as a teenager to pay for college. I was fortunate to get a scholarship to Barnard College. My scholarship didn’t cover everything. My freshman year, I lived in the apartment of two elderly widows for whom I cooked five days a week in return for room and board. As a sophomore, I shared college housing with five young women: Six small rooms with a kitchen cost $7 per week back then. That doesn’t sound like much but some weeks I had little to spend on food if I didn’t have a modeling assignment or baby-sitting job. I did not feel deprived, or poor, or unhappy. It was the way things were and I knew, once I graduated and was working regularly, all would be well.” —University of Phoenix Commencement Speech, 2012

Betty Friedan, Smith College, 1942

“At Smith we certainly were not geared [toward] having careers. You were going to get married, you were going to have kids and you’d be a leader, a community leader, a leader of the volunteer effort. If you were very bright and you became head of a department, as I did, of the psychology department, you were encouraged to go on to graduate work. But as a woman you didn’t even think about discrimination. Nobody asked you, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up, little girl?’ but, ‘Oh, you’re a pretty little girl; you’ll be a mommy like mommy,’ blah, blah, blah. Well, I knew one thing. I did not want to be a mommy like mommy.” —PBS

Meryl Streep, Vassar College, 1971

“In high school … I wanted to learn how to be appealing. So I studied the character I imagined I wanted to be — that of the generically pretty high school girl. I researched her deeply, that is to say shallowly, in Vogue, in Seventeen, and in Mademoiselle magazines. I tried to imitate her hair, her lipstick, her lashes, the clothes of the lithesome, beautiful and generically appealing high school girls that I saw in those pages … I adjusted my natural temperament, which tends to be slightly bossy, a little opinionated, loud, a little loud, full of pronouncements and high spirits, and I willfully cultivated softness, agreeableness, a breezy, natural sort of sweetness even shyness, if you will, which was very, very, very effective on the boys. The girls didn’t buy it [but] I had actually convinced myself that I was this person … a girl who laughed a lot at every stupid thing every boy said and who lowered her eyes at the right moment and deferred, who learned to defer when the boys took over the conversation … I got to Vassar, which 43 years ago was a single-sex institution … and I made some quick but lifelong and challenging friends. With their help outside of any competition for boys my brain woke up. I got up and I got outside myself and I found myself again. I didn’t have to pretend. I could be goofy, vehement, aggressive, and slovenly and open and funny and tough and my friends let me. I didn’t wash my hair for three weeks once. They accepted me like the Velveteen Rabbit.” —Barnard Commencement Speech, 2010

Jodie Foster, Yale University, 1985

“I wanted to be the kind of girl who’s friendly, well-liked, social … I attended every freshman event, every college game to make them feel that I was okay, normal, just like they were. But as the weeks went by I realized I really wasn’t. I had a job to go back to, lawyers to call, photographers to pose for. It wasn’t until at least two years later that I realized it was okay to be different. Better, even. Being understood is not the most essential thing in life…As I became less and less afraid of new experiences, my personality changed. I took on a screw-the-world dress code. I hung out with people I thought were unique, nonconformist, substantially complex…I had my first and last bout with tequila. I did ska dances in the street, water-ballooned singing groups, philosophized and talked dirty until five in the morning. The control I’d had all those years was self-imposed and alienating.” — “Why Me?” for Esquire, 1982

Madeleine L’Engle, Smith College, 1941

“One great advantage of a women’s college is that whatever there is to be done, we women do. If there is a magazine to be started, we start it. If there is an officer to be elected, one of us will be elected. I left college and went to New York to earn my living with the assurance that all doors were of course open to me, and that’s a good attitude to have. If you expect doors to be open, they’re likely to be open. If you expect them to be closed, they’re likely to slam in your face.” —Wellesley Commencement, 1991

Jennifer Garner, Denison University, 1994

“I had all kinds of jobs [in college]. Well, the job I’m about to tell you about — I don’t think the school knows that I did it. It wasn’t sanctioned and I didn’t get a paycheck necessarily, but I did make money, so … Okay, what the hell, we’re in too late now. I saw a need and I filled it. My college roommate and I … we were theater geeks and we had a key to the theater department, and we would go in late at night and we would use their sewing machines and their elastic and we would make scrunchies … Scrunchies are fabric-colored hair things that were very popular … We would make boxes full of scrunchies in sorority colors or just [ones that were] cute . ..We went door-to-door in the dorms and said, ‘One for $3, two for $5!’ and we raked it in. We made so much money … The girls loved them … I still run into people, I swear to you, who say, ‘Oh my gosh, I have your scrunchie!’” — Late Show with David Letterman, 2011

Lupita Nyong’o, Hampshire College 2003, Yale School of Drama, 2012

“[Hampshire is] very, very unconventional. I was quite nervous about that sort of thing, but what Hampshire is really good for is teaching you to be self-reliant and self-motivated, and I discovered that I had it in me to have a dream, make it a goal, and make it happen. That’s what I experienced with my final thesis project, In My Genes, which was a documentary about the experience of being a person with albinism in Kenya. I don’t think I would have discovered that kind of self-sufficiency had I gone to a more structured school, where people told you what to learn, how to be, and how to go about it … [When] I was at Hampshire … a friend of mine, who I had done a production of Romeo and Juliet with when I was 14, got into the Yale School of Drama. That was the first time it occurred to me that I could train as an actor. He was the one who made it possible for me to even think that this could be my journey because he was Kenyan and he got into Yale … but it took years for me to come to actual terms with that, because I didn’t know anyone growing up who was a successful actor who was making a living off of being just an actor [and] I was shy about admitting that that’s what I wanted to do with my life.” —Vanity Fair, 2014

Zadie Smith, Cambridge University, 1997

“Oh, the love dramas. So many love dramas. Mine, other people’s. They take up such a large part of college life it seems almost unfair not to have them properly reflected in the transcript. Any full account of my university years should really include the fact that I majored in English Literature with a minor in drunken discussions about the difference between loving someone and being in love with that person. What can I tell you — it was the ‘90s. We were really into ourselves. We were into self-curation.” —New School Commencement Speech, 2014

Michelle Obama, Princeton University, 1985

“My experiences at Princeton have made me far more aware of my ‘blackness’ than ever before. I have found that at Princeton, no matter how liberal and open-minded some of my white professors and classmates try to be toward me, I sometimes feel like a visitor on campus; as if I really don’t belong. Regardless of the circumstances under which I interact with whites at Princeton, it often seems as if, to them, I will always be black first and a student second.” — Michelle Obama, college thesis titled Princeton-Educated Blacks and the Black Community, 1985

Hillary Clinton, Wellesley College, 1969

“We protested against the rigid academic distribution requirement. We worked for a pass-fail system. We worked for a say in some of the process of academic decision making. And luckily we were in a place where, when we questioned the meaning of a liberal-arts education there were people with enough imagination to respond to that questioning.” —Student Commencement Speech, 1969

Gloria Steinem, Smith College, 1956

“I went through a period of twenty years of being angry or disappointed with Smith — in the way that you’re most angry with your own family. … I mean, I had gone through this entire college without ever reading a feminist book, without learning that women weren’t just given the vote as a gift, without learning about the links between the suffragists’ and abolitionists’ movements, without learning what Dorothy Kenyon and people who had graduated ahead of me were doing. [It] was never mentioned. So I was really angry at Smith for not preparing us for the world, and I wouldn’t have gone on the board except that Smith was changing, of course, as the world was changing.” — Interview at Smith College in 2000

Nora Ephron, Wellesley College, 1962

“I want to tell you a little bit about my class, the class of 1962 … How long ago was it? It was so long ago that while I was here, Wellesley actually threw six young women out for lesbianism. It was so long ago that we had curfews. It was so long ago that if you had a boy in your room, you had to leave the door open six inches, and if you closed the door you had to put a sock on the doorknob. In my class of, I don’t know, maybe 375 young women, there were six Asians and five blacks. There was a strict quota on the number of Jews … We weren’t meant to have futures, we were meant to marry them. We weren’t meant to have politics, or careers that mattered, or opinions, or lives; we were meant to marry them. If you wanted to be an architect, you married an architect. Non Ministrare sed Ministrari — you know the old joke, not to be ministers but to be ministers’ wives.” —Wellesley 1996 Commencement Speech

Zooey Deschanel, Northwestern University

“I went to Northwestern because I had gone to a really nontraditional high school. I was like, ‘It’d be cool to have a traditional college experience.’ Then I was like, ‘Oh, but none of these people understand what’s cool about me. My specialness is not appreciated in this place.’” —Allure, February 2012

Jennifer Connelly, Yale University and Stanford University

“When I was in college, I didn’t really know how to put it together … My life had been sort of hijacked by this career, which defined me in one way, and I wanted so much to be defined in an entirely different way: as a student. But I was just horrendous at pulling it off. I was so isolated. I wanted so much to be part of a community, but I had no idea how to do it. All I did was study, and I had no social life. Complete nerd. And I felt very vulnerable and just too much in my head.” —Vogue, November 2007

Julia Stiles, Columbia University, 2005

“Having gone [to Columbia] for two years now, I realize the reason I’m staying is ‘cause it makes me happy — I love being in an environment where, for the most part, all that matters is my ideas. But the reason I went in the first place was because I don’t want to be forty-years-old, surrounded by studio executives who went to good colleges, and feel like I’m at a disadvantage. And, more importantly, I don’t want to get sucked into the whole Hollywood thing to the point where I can’t exist in a world that doesn’t revolve around me.” —Elle, August 2002

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