the westminster news
Published by the students of Westminster School
By Carolyn Cheng '24 and Tarapi Pyo '24
(Image Credit: Seshu Photography)
Mrs. Urner-Berry graduated from Westminster as Class of 1981, only 10 years after coeducation was first introduced on Williams Hill. She came back in 1985 to teach for four years, and then she taught at an all-girls day school before returning again. She is currently the longest-serving alumni on the faculty. She teaches chemistry and math and coaches the girls’ cross country team. She is an inspiration to all and a significant role model to us Martlets.
Can you tell us about your experience at Westminster regarding coeducation?
I came in the fall of 1979 as a Fifth Form day student. I knew that Westminster used to be a boys' school because at some point I had a relative who was here, but I had no knowledge of how recently it had gone coed. And, when I got here, I didn't notice that boys and girls were treated differently. I was very aware that all of the girls were at the top of the class in terms of their GPA, so I sort of assumed that was normal. I remember at graduation when I won the math award, and a parent came over and was like “Wow, you won the math award and you’re a girl.” A year or two later, my mother told me she was so angry. Of course I'm a girl, that's obvious. I had not grown up with any expectation in the classroom that girls weren’t the equals of boys, so in terms of coeducation that way, I think Westminster probably brought everybody up to speed and made everybody equal pretty quickly.
What were some difficulties you faced being a woman in STEM, especially at Westminster?
I felt very fairly treated as a STEM girl. It wasn't until years later when I learned girls were expected to be more humanities-oriented. That was the stereotype and I had no idea. I did not have any difficulties really. I would say more after I learned there were these stereotypes and I heard that girls were treated differently. My assumption was that girls were stronger in math and science than boys. I realized I had to be more aware if I was treating anybody differently. I have the same expectation for everybody I teach — it doesn't matter if you're a girl or boy. If this is what you're interested in, that is what I'm trying to help you move forward with.
What was your experience as a female athlete at Westminster?
I hadn't really done a whole lot of athletics before I came here because I had terrible asthma. So, when I came here, I did field hockey. I definitely can look back and say the teams were very new in building because they weren't really successful. Somebody like me without a lot of experience could make the JV team. I had another friend who was brand new to soccer, and she made varsity. I did swimming and that was fine. I then did track and field. Then I tried out for the tennis team. There was probably only one tennis team and I got cut. By default, I went to track. I ran some low hurdles. I ran the 110-yard low hurdles. I hold the school record in the 110 low hurdles that will never be broken because, the next year, everybody went to meters. My yard record will stand forever. We had some very strong girls come through — very good athletes that started to come through in the early 80s — really good athletes. I just remember admiring the stronger athletes who came after me.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of coeducation?
I came here in 1985 to teach, and I was here for four years. I did work at an all-girls school for two years which I really loved, and I didn’t see any differences in the classroom. I had strong girl students and weak girl students. I coached field hockey, and I had strong athletes and weaker athletes. As a teacher, you work with what you have in front of you. I think there are lots of advantages to coeducation, just the normal daily male-female interaction, particularly the young males seeing female teachers who are able to have a family and raise children (as well as young men — it goes all ways). I think my students all had a great experience and it [coeducation] is more of a personal decision. There’s pros and cons — pros being normal societal interaction, but there are cons as well. Do people put you down for being a woman? Do people objectify you? You learn to deal with that. You see egos that are men; you see egos that are women. The more I reflect on it, the more I think everyone is the same. You have the same kind of person who can be either a male or a female. I don’t know why society continues to even propagate the myth that there is a huge difference between men and women. People are people, and every single person is an individual bringing lots of different things.
What can Westminster improve on moving forward?
I think it’s hard. They’re fighting the battle of getting good teachers, good coaches — women in their prime years who have the energy and time, putting in all that to be a mentor to different girls. It’s hard to have women who do it all. I very much tried to be a role model by staying teaching while my girls were young. I was sort of part-time in the sense that I taught three classes, and I did weekend duty, but I didn’t coach for several years. I had to ratchet it back because it’s so busy here trying to do everything; but I wanted to be a role model. Don’t assume you need to choose between being a mother and having a career. I think Westminster needs to keep looking for and going out and hiring women who can be coaches and be in the classrooms and the dorms. One of the things I’m the most proud of is having stayed here for as long as I have: I’m the oldest alumni on the faculty right now. It’s keeping and retaining women for long periods that I think is tricky, and you have to work on it. You have to give and take through the years to make things work for them or their families. You can do the same thing for men.