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Her college announced its plans for closure but she still has hope for the future

Photo by Iris Kingery

“I didn’t choose Mills, Mills pretty much chose me,” Mills sophomore Tyy Hayes says as she stands surrounded by the characteristic bright green meadows and Eucalyptus trees on the Mills campus.

And it’s true: her journey to Mills was one of happenstance. Hayes, who is studying politics, economics, policy, and law, initially applied to Mills at the suggestion of her high school administrator, an alumna. After receiving her acceptance letter, she chose Mills largely because of its location, California, where she had always wanted to live, but came to love the College for much more than its geography.

Though Hayes is pursuing an interdisciplinary degree, she is quick to affirm, with a twinkle in her eye, that her concentration — and life goal — is law.

“[Being a lawyer] is definitely me, that career is all me,” she says. “That’s my passion, it’s always been something that was dear to me, especially after my father had his trial when he was murdered … to watch my father’s lawyer be cunning and be intelligent and be swift … I was inspired and taken and I was like, I can do that. And I was like, that’s what I’m supposed to do. I can do what he’s doing. And he won the case, and justice was brought to my father because of that lawyer.”

So in August of 2019, she boarded a plane from her hometown, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to Oakland, California and became the first in her family to attend college. The transition was exciting, nerve-wracking and transformative. She made friends, decorated her dorm room, attended classes on law and public policy, and became established in the Mills community for her quick wit and forward-thinking mindset. Not all moments were perfect, but she largely recounts Mills as a new home.

Then, two months before the completion of her first year at college, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, leaving students with the decision to move off-campus and into a diaspora of remote, online learning. Mills’ educators, staff and student body faithfully continued their learning where it had left off via online and continue to do so, over a year later. Remote learning became routine, but Hayes and other students remained hopeful for an eventual return to normalcy in their academic careers. What students weren’t expecting was a structural shift of the future of Mills.

On March 17, 2021, President Beth Hillman announced that the college will shift away from being a degree-granting institution and become a Mills Institute that “can sustain Mills’ mission,” citing the COVID-19 pandemic, structural changes across higher education, and Mills’ declining enrollment and budget deficits. The announcement caused a wave of emotion, with over 100 students and alumnae gathering outside of the Mills’ main entrance gate on MacArthur Blvd. to protest the decision. Several alternate paths for Mills have also been proposed by students and alumnae, from absorption into the UC system to giving unceded Ohlone land on which it resides back to the Sogorea Te Land Trust.

Like many, Hayes can’t claim to have every answer. Given her roots at Mills, one might expect her to feel upset — and she did, she says, move through those emotions but feels in higher spirits now.

“In my opinion, our first currency can begin through our ashes,” she says. “You know, we’re in a position where we’ve got our backs against the wall. Students are just now finding out and realizing [the college is] starting to feel that we threw in the towel a long time ago. That’s a very discouraging feeling, if I just say so myself, in defense of my student body.”

Hayes shared that the announcement of the Mills transition highlighted a lack of transparency about the financial struggles the college was facing. She felt that students in the Class of ’23 weren’t able to fight against the decision or have the opportunity to join the social justice communities at Mills that have been working towards improving Mills for a long time.

“I mean Mills is a small college, it’s private, you know, and it’s an underdog place so it’s always fighting, and our class just wanted to be given the chance, more so than the one that we have been given,” she says.

Though Hayes felt discouraged, that’s not the part of her story she wants to leave you with. She now asserts her hope for the future of the Mills community and takes great historical and personal significance in the understanding that as of May 2021, Mills will confer its final degrees to her class, Class of ’23. To her, supporting the faculty and staff will make all the difference.

“What will make me feel heard is to see Mills working to make this the best experience possible for the last graduating class of this place. Whether that looks like […] financially, creating more security [for] professors and faculty, we need to do that for the final class, that’s what I want to see,” she says, “I want to see Mills, head tall, chin in the air for the final class. […] Now, in this time of my life as a sophomore, Mills College student, political science major, I stand for the final class being appreciative and, you know, smiling until the end. You’re dancing. Dancing out of here.”