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September 13, 2017

Ninotska Love, 28, studies on campus at Wellesley College. Love is one of the first transgender women accepted to the all women's college. (Kirk Carapezza/WGBH)

For the first time in its 147-year history, Wellesley College is opening its gates to women who've publicly come out as transgender. And for one student, it’s been a long process to get there.

Ninotska Love, 28, is one of the first two openly transgender students to attend the prestigious women's college.

The Ecuadorian immigrant was designated male at birth. But she says as young as 5 years old, she felt like a girl, often trying on her mom's clothes.

"I didn't have the notion of the word transgender ... but I understood that I was not in the right body,” Love said. “So, for me it was like, 'Oh, why am I not in a body that matches my soul?'"

As an adult, Love was bullied and assaulted for dressing like a woman. After escaping a group of men who kidnapped her, she fled Ecuador and entered Texas illegally. Eventually, she was granted refugee status.

In 2012, Love decided to transition. Her Catholic family took it hard.

"For my mom, it was quite difficult at the beginning,” Love said. “But she's my best friend and I was very honest about it."

Love moved to New York City, where she enrolled at LaGuardia Community College in Queens. But she didn't tell anyone on campus she was transgender.

“At La Guardia, I didn't openly share about my gender identity because I was in a safe space," she said.

At Wellesley, that’s changed.

Love wanted to transfer to a four-year school and Wellesley was her top choice. In the spring of 2015, the college announced it would consider any applicant who "identifies as a woman."

That opened the way for Love. Last year, she applied — and got in.

"I am still pinching myself every day when I wake up, I cry, I pray,” Love said. “And I'm very thankful to be here because this is not — or at least it was not — for me."

Since 2015, despite some backlash from older alumnae, Wellesley and at least eight other women's colleges have decided to admit transgender students.

"Wellesley has always, in its history, been self-reflective," said Joy St. John, dean of admission at Wellesley.

A few years ago, St. John said the college reflected on the issue of applicants who don't identify with a specific gender. It then clarified its admissions policy.

"If a student was assigned female at birth and is gender non-conforming … they are still welcome to apply to Wellesley as long as the mission of the college resonates with them," St. John said.

Some alumnae worry accepting transgender students might change what it means to be a women's college. They say the move could undermine Wellesley's mission to empower women. St. John dismisses that argument.

"The change in policy reaffirms what it means to be a woman in the 21st century," she said.

Students on campus were overwhelmingly supportive of the new policy.

"I'm fine with it. I think it makes the most sense,” said Jane Vaughan, a senior who edits Wellesley’s student newspaper. “We allow trans women, but not trans men."

She reports that there wasn't a backlash on campus to the policy clarification, although some students did express reservations behind closed doors.

"I think some people were more uncomfortable with rooming with someone who might have been trans, so that was the biggest concern I think people had," Vaughan said.

A week into classes, Love says she feels at home on the Wellesley campus. While in college, Love plans to major in gender studies. After she finishes, she hopes to become a human rights lawyer, helping other trans-gender immigrants.

But for now, she’s found a place to call her own.

"As soon as I put my feet into the ground, I felt like they just rooted like a tree,” she said. “And I told everybody, 'I belong here. I belong here!'"

WGBH's Esteban Bustillos contributed to this story. 

Earlier: Mount Holyoke's New Transgender Policy Redefines Women's Education

increasing access and success, Wellesley College, higher ed, transgender

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