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Bryn Mawr president says students are savvy but too pressured

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The college student of the '80s? Thoughtful, practical, polite - even to the point of writing an occasional thank-you note. Deeply concerned about the nuclear weapons buildup and the link between student aid and draft registration. Generally disillusioned, however, about the effectiveness of the political process. And under heavy pressure to major in a field that will lead swiftly to a top-paying job.

That's the assessment of Bryn Mawr College president Mary Patterson McPherson during a stop in Chicago on a recent fund-raising trip. In a wide-ranging interview, the tall, slender, and athletic Ms. McPherson, who has a PhD in philosophy and once thought of being an Olympic equestrian, talked about everything from financial and parental pressures on students to why she treasures a liberal-arts education above all vocational competitors.

''You've got a long time to live inside your head, so it better be an interesting place to be,'' says the president of this Pennsylvania college, which includes an undergraduate liberal-arts program for women and two coed graduate schools. ''You shouldn't find yourself a crashing bore when all is said and done. . . . And as one gets older there have got to be other interests (outside of one's job) such as art, music, or literature that you turn to and draw pleasure from.''

As liberal-arts majors, Bryn Mawr undergraduates should not need to be sold on that point, but Dr. McPherson says, ''I stand up about five times a year and tell them what they're there for.'' She does it she says because she views the liberal arts as threatened, particularly at major universities.

''I think many students are forced to say what they want to do too soon,'' she says. ''In a lot of cases you're hearing what momma and poppa want them to do because people are living very hard through their children these days. I don't know whether it's because there's such a financial investment involved that they (parents) feel very panicky about it, or whether in some way their own lives aren't fulfilling, but there's a lot of heavy expectation.

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