Chosen Family

A group of three Mills alumnae, each 12 years apart in age, count their bond as among the most important in their lives.

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These grads have held monthly sleepovers since their time at Mills in the early ’90s. The pandemic barely slowed them down.

By Lila Goehring ’21
From left: Victoria Needham Williams ’94, Jennifer Williams ’95, and Laura Sherman ’95

As students, Victoria Needham Williams ’94 and Laura Sherman ’95 first met early one morning as both waited to meet an advisor in Cowell Building. The professor never showed, and a sudden power outage left the two in complete darkness. It was then that Victoria professed her first words to Laura: “I think we are supposed to be very good friends in this life.”

The two recently failed to hold back tears upon recalling this moment. “I just felt safe with her,” Victoria said of Laura. Both were still uncertain they would find places to plug in as older students— Victoria had spent time working in the fields of aging and affordable housing before coming to Mills, in addition to raising her family; and Laura still held her full-time job throughout her college years. In the quiet moments before their Mills journeys came to life, Laura and Victoria seemingly fell out of the sky and into each other’s lives.

The duo soon met Jennifer Williams ’95 (no relation), a traditional student who enrolled at Mills immediately after graduating from high school, in a communications class taught by Professor Nancy Burroughs (then known as Nancy Burroughs-Denhart). An in-class activity prompted students to discuss each other’s learning styles, and it was their differences—not just in age—that brought them together as much as similarities. “Just in case I hadn’t noticed before, people don’t think like me, they don’t write like me, they don’t move in the world like me,” Laura said. And there’s nothing like a group project to discover the strengths of others: “Each of us called upon the others in a way that brought about our highest good,” Laura reflected. A team was born, and it has only grown stronger in the nearly 30 years since.

Their kinship is unlike most for reasons beyond its longevity: They are each 12 years apart in age. They have gathered for sleepovers every month for decades. Their commitment to friendship itself is fierce. And they found each other as Mills students. One destination, many paths profoundly defines their journey to each other and has kept them glued together ever since. They call themselves “the Sisters.”

“Some romantic relationships have an end date,” Victoria said. “This does not.”

Resumers and a “Traditional” Student

Jennifer Williams painted three of the plates seen here—one for each Sister. Each plate includes the Japanese proverb “There is no better mirror than an old friend.”

Coming back to school at Mills wasn’t an easy decision for Victoria, especially as a resuming student—a population of students over 23 years old. “I felt like Mills wouldn’t be a place for me,” she said. “I thought, it’s in the city… a lot of rich, young, blonde women go there.” But she came to find that Mills nurtured students from all paths, ages, and hair colors. “I could fit in,” she realized.

Still, the college experience is different for each resuming student, many of whom must juggle work and family commitments while in school. What resumers share is the same trait that has sustained the Sisters’ friendship as long as it has, and that is intentionality. Upon her return to education, what Victoria needed was focus: “I’d never used a computer before,” she recalled. “I wanted no TV in my [dorm] room—I needed to really study, because I’d been away for so long, and all the students who were traditionally aged were still used to learning.”

For Laura, a return to school meant juggling full-time work with her studies. “A professor said to me, ‘Coming back to school at this age and paying for it… you’re going to value it more,’” she said. “By that time, I took my educational experience very seriously.”

Befriending both women framed Jennifer’s Mills experience, which became anything but “traditional” despite her age. At Mills, she explained, it was perfectly common to see a group of students of all ages studying together in the library or eating lunch on the meadow. “The multigenerational element is a real opportunity at Mills, and I don’t think it’s an opportunity in every environment,” she said.

Resuming students have long found a haven at Mills—a population that has come to make up nearly a fifth of undergraduate students—and with them bring experiences as parents, dedicated scholars, and experts in every field imaginable. “I feel like I benefited from [their] life experience,” Jennifer said. “That percentage of the student population really contributes to the culture in a way that accelerates the dialogue.” Laura and Victoria’s devotion to (and appreciation for) their studies on top of other life responsibilities was apparent to Jennifer, and it motivated her to find that same intention in her own education.

Completing a college education at any age isn’t easy, and finding lifelong friends who choose you year after year is no simple task. But not only did Mills give the Sisters the opportunity to find one another, it provided them with an empowering environment to push themselves beyond their limits. “I was scrambling and struggling and it was all so incredibly worthwhile, and it defined me,” Laura said. “Didn’t Mills define us?” A resounding yes echoed from everyone.

Something to Depend on

I joined the Sisters for their first in-person (and vaccinated) sleepover since the start of the pandemic, and even though I was just staying for dinner, I ended up spending eight hours in their small yet strong universe of sisterhood. Arriving at Victoria’s San Leandro house felt like coming home. Laura was out walking her dog; Victoria was arranging an extensive snack table; and Jennifer soon arrived and greeted us all with big hugs. It’s customary for the Sisters to take turns hosting the gathering and to bring dishes for a potluck-style dinner. This time, Victoria made lasagna, Jenn mixed a hefty salad, and Laura rushed to stick garlic bread in the oven at the last minute—just as we were sitting down at a fully set table, complete with a tablecloth and candles.

It was Victoria who instigated the annual December tradition of mapping out sleepover dates for the coming year. The three sit down and block off the dates, which from that moment forth are untouchable. “This is a sacred time,” Victoria said. “I don’t have my kids nearby and I need family. I need this.” Even during the pandemic, when they could not be together in person, their monthly Zoom calls lasted six hours or so. When Laura speaks about this unique friendship to others, it’s not its durability or Mills roots that catches attention as much as the frequent sleepovers. “I don’t have anything else like it in my life,” Laura professed.

This sacred time each month took them from friends to family and continues to bring them closer together: The Sisters, who now range in age from 48 to 72, see the value of growing older together, to guide each other into new phases of life, and words like grounding came up often as they reflected on their decades together. “I really felt cemented with you both when we started getting together for overnights,” Jennifer said to Victoria and Laura of the tradition that started during their time at Mills. “We started sharing each other’s lives in a different way, and that depth of time changed our friendship.”

At every gathering, each Sister has a chance to tell all of her stories from the month in between: “We make lists before we get together about things we want to talk about,” Laura explained. And along with hours of catching up and sharing food, there’s room for fun and ritual: I joined the Sisters in a candlelit, rib-cracking session of Mad Lib writing, where we summoned up nouns like Ethel Moore Hall and Founders. After the sun had gone down, we moved inside to the living room, where Laura brought out a set of runes—small tokens used for divination. Each of us took turns choosing a rune, and the person to our left opened the corresponding book to read about what it meant in the scope of our lives. Each word was read and received with a level of care usually reserved for bedtime stories. In this moment, the years spoke for themselves.