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10 Influential Women and Where They Went to College

Niche Celebrates Women's History Month

Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Cornell University and Columbia University
Location: Ithaca, NY and New York, NY
Acceptance Rate: 11% and 5%

A Supreme Court justice and co-founder of the Women’s Rights Law Reporter, Ginsburg graduated from Cornell University in 1954 with her bachelor of arts in government. In the fall of 1956, Ginsburg enrolled at Harvard Law School, one of only nine women in a class of 500 men. She later transferred to Columbia Law School where she completed her degree in 1959. Ginsburg dedicated her career to gender equality and served as a Supreme Court justice from 1993 until her death in 2020.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Eastern Connecticut State University
Location: Willimantic, CT
Acceptance Rate: 64%

Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is known for her TED Talk “We Should All Be Feminists.” Born in Nigeria in 1977, Adichie moved to the U.S. at 19 where she enrolled at Drexel University in Philadelphia before transferring to Eastern Connecticut State University. In 2001 she graduated with her bachelor’s in communication and political science. She went on to complete two master’s degrees, one in creative writing at Johns Hopkins University and another in African History from Yale University

Dr. Mary Edwards Walker

The State University of New York, Upstate Medical University
Location: Syracuse, NY

In 1863 Dr. Mary Edwards Walker became the first female U.S. Army surgeon. Walker was the second woman to ever graduate from Syracuse Medical College (now SUNY Upstate), receiving her medical degree in 1855. When the Civil War began, she moved to Washington D.C. to join the Union’s war efforts as a surgeon, but was only allowed to be a nurse. Two years into the war, she was finally allowed to become an Army surgeon. Dr. Walker remains the only woman in history to have received the Presidential Medal of Honor. 

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Boston University
Location: Boston, MA
Acceptance Rate: 19%

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is the youngest woman ever to serve in the United States Congress. She graduated from Boston University in 2011 with her bachelor of arts in international relations and economics. She started as a science major at BU before changing her major. After college, she worked as a bartender and waitress, and was involved as an activist and political organizer. Ocasio-Cortez began her term as U.S. Representative for New York’s 14th congressional district in 2019. 

Viola Davis

Rhode Island College and Juilliard
Location: Providence, RI and New York, NY
Acceptance Rate: 78% and 7%

Viola Davis is best known for her award-winning roles in The Help, Fences, and How to Get Away With Murder. She is the first African American to achieve the Triple Crown of Acting, winning an Academy Award, a Primetime Emmy, and two Tony Awards. Davis graduated from Rhode Island College in 1988, and later attended the Juilliard School. Time Magazine has twice named Davis on their list of the 100 most influential people in the world, in 2012 and 2017. 


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Zora Neale Hurston

Howard University and Barnard College
Location: Washington, D.C. and New York, NY
Acceptance Rate: 36% and 12%

Zora Neale Hurston was an author and academic most famous for writing Their Eyes Were Watching God. She lived in New York City during the Harlem Renaissance. Hurston had a difficult early adulthood, which included pretending to be 16 when she was 26 in order to finish high school. She eventually received her associate degree in 1920 from Howard University and her bachelor’s from Barnard College in 1928. 

Pat Summitt

The University of Tennessee at Martin
Location: Marin, TN
Acceptance Rate: 64%

Women’s college basketball coach Pat Summit accrued 1,098 wins throughout her career—the most in college basketball history. She graduated from the University of Tennessee at Martin in 1974 and began coaching women’s basketball at the university’s Knoxville campus. Summitt went on to win a silver medal at the 1976 Olympics, and later coached the gold winning 1984 Olympic team. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012. She passed away in 2016.

Sheila Johnson

University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
Location: Urbana, IL
Acceptance Rate: 59%

Co-founder of BET and CEO of Salamander Hotels, Sheila Johnson was the first Black woman to attain a net worth of a billion dollars. As a child, Johnson fell in love with music, becoming a concert violinist and the first African American to win the Illinois statewide violin competition. She graduated with her B.A. in music from the University of Illinois in 1970. 

Jackie MacMullan

University of New Hampshire
Location: Durham, NH
Acceptance Rate: 84%

Sports journalist Jackie MacMullan graduated from the University of New Hampshire in 1982. She was the first woman to be awarded the Basketball Hall of Fame’s Curt Gowdy Media Award. Throughout her career she worked at the Boston Globe, Sports Illustrated and ESPN, and collaborated with Larry Bird and Magic Johnson on the NY Times bestseller When The Game Was Ours. MacMullan retired in 2021 after 40 years of reporting. 

Oprah Winfrey

Tennessee State University
Location: Nashville, TN
Acceptance rate: 100%

Oprah Winfrey is a TV show host, producer, actress, and philanthropist who has dedicated her life to helping women grow and thrive. Winfrey attended Tennessee State University to study communication, and at 19 became a news anchor at her local CBS station. In 1984 she began hosting a small Chicago morning talk show, which soon was renamed to The Oprah Winfrey Show. Her award-winning talk show ran for 25 seasons. 

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