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Lone 'boy' on campus

At Wellesley College, exchange student enjoys his high profile, embraces challenge

Alexandra Solimano passed out crafts materials for a holiday decorating program in her dormitory at Wellesley College. Her friend Mohammad Usman is the lone male student on campus. Alexandra Solimano passed out crafts materials for a holiday decorating program in her dormitory at Wellesley College. Her friend Mohammad Usman is the lone male student on campus. (Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff)
Email|Print| Text size + By Keith O'Brien
Globe Staff / December 3, 2007

WELLESLEY - To many women, he is simply "the boy." They know who he is, even if they do not know his name. They know his story, even if they have never spoken to him.

In the small, all-female world of Wellesley College, Mohammad Usman is famous in this way. He is literally a man among women - about 2,300 women. Usman, 19, is the only man attending Wellesley College this fall.

"A lot of people don't know his name, really," said Johanna Peace, a Wellesley junior and the editor-in-chief of the student newspaper, the Wellesley News. "They're aware that there's a boy on campus. And if they see him, they'll say, 'Oh - there's the boy.' "

The boy in question has been living in a dormitory on campus since September, showering in his private bathroom, and, perhaps predictably, becoming something of a folk hero among his male friends.

But do not get the wrong idea here: Wellesley College, known for educating such top female minds as presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton, is not allowing men to become full-time students like many other local women's colleges. Usman, who grew up in Bronx, N.Y., has come to Wellesley on a semester-long exchange program, and he maintains his motives for wanting to be here are pure.

He wanted to come for the educational experience. (And the women.) He was looking forward to living near Boston. (And lots of women.) To him, this was a chance of a lifetime.

"I thought it would be really fascinating to be the only male at an all-women's college," said Usman, a government and geography double major at Dartmouth, who has been taking two classes at Wellesley this fall and two at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology due to a partnership that Wellesley has with the Cambridge school. "I like to believe I'm curious."

"I want to try new things, and the greatest part of a liberal-arts education is experiencing a wide variety of things. It's important to me to get the most of my 50 Gs."

Under an agreement among 11 New England institutions, students can apply to spend a semester at another school. A classmate of Usman's mentioned this about a year ago, and the pair decided to apply to spend a term at Wellesley - a decision that surprised one Dartmouth staffer so much that she informed Usman that it was not possible.

As it turns out, though, it is. Men have attended Wellesley via the exchange program in the past, although not recently, said Jennifer Thomas-Starck, who oversees the program at Wellesley. Usman and his friend were accepted. But then Usman's friend backed out, leaving Usman to go at it alone.

"I was committed," he said.

Usman, the fourth child of Pakistani immigrants who own a variety store in the Bronx, enrolled at Wellesley for the fall semester like everyone else. His parents, who dropped him off on campus, were surprised to see so many women, mostly because Usman had failed to tell them that Wellesley was a women's college. And soon, others were surprised - not by the women, but by the lone man on campus.

Early on, Usman said, a campus police officer questioned whether he was actually a student. "The look on his face was just like, 'Yeah, OK, buddy,' " Usman recalled. And then there were the female students who would see him and ask whether he was supposed to be there. In response, he showed people his student ID card. And word quickly spread about "the boy" in their midst.

"Most guys who are on campus are somebody's boyfriend," said Amy Goodman, a sophomore in Usman's world politics class. "So when there's a guy who doesn't have anybody and who's going to an all-girls school, it's going to make people go, 'Oh, who is this person?' "

Female students have wondered about Usman's motives. But some say Usman has blended in among them. The school assigned him a "big sister," just as they do for every other new student. In class, he often sits up front, and Usman has made plenty of female friends - a fact that does not surprise those who know him well.

"This is a women's college," said Wilbur Rich, a political science professor at Wellesley who is teaching Usman this semester. "There's no doubt in anybody's mind what's going on here. This is an institution for women. But men are welcome. If you don't mind being around very, very bright women, it's no problem."

That is not an issue for Usman, who said he has no girlfriend. He is very attracted to intelligent women, he said, and has enjoyed the attention he has received from classmates.

Usman said he will miss the friends he has made when the semester ends on Dec. 20. But one evening last week, while meeting with three classmates for a group project, the women were more concerned about whether Usman was going to be there for his big sister next spring.

"What?" Usman asked.

The three women explained he had to be there for the traditional hoop-rolling race that seniors participate in every spring, that he needed to save his big sister a good spot on the starting line, and that she would be expecting it.

"What is this?" he said again.

The classmates sitting at his table were appalled and tried to convince Usman of the importance of these matters. But in the end, it was no use. What did he know, anyway, about being a Wellesley girl?

He's just a boy.

Keith O'Brien can be reached at kobrien@globe.com.

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