Few college graduates can claim to have had the experience my fellow staff and I have shared while with the Women’s Center. Our jobs have been many things: one part employee, one part student, one part teacher, one part social justice programmer, one part artist, one part writer, one part friend, one part killjoy. I can’t speak for everybody, but I know I was able to work from many different angles–something I’ve always wanted in a job–and I was guided by my own passion for feminism and social justice. With the Women’s Center, I have gained quite a bit of insight into working with a professional social justice organization.
This is where I’m going to talk about what I’ve gained from my time with the Women’s Center.
Working at the Women’s Center you gain a lot of different skills that become increasingly useful as you approach graduation and begin to enter the “real world,” as we so forebodingly call it (as if college is a wholly separate fantasy world where our responsibilities don’t exist). Here are a few of the most valuable things I’ve learned about, and that I’ve been reflecting on as I count down to my last day working at the Center.
First and foremost, the Women’s Center is a real live university department with an office and official logo and letterheads and everything. Working for the Center meant working in a professional space and conducting myself in a professional manner. We have tons of fun in the office, but we also work hard to get things done on campus. I would attend meetings with campus staff, write official copy for various publications, and (try to) conduct myself with the poise and responsibility of someone who wanted to represent the Women’s Center in the best way possible.
Before I started at the Center, I took for granted what “professional experience” meant and how important it is; I thought I would simply enter the state of professionalism once I got a real job and made real money and had a real mortgage with a real wife and kids and a real white picket fence. Like a college student caterpillar becoming a business butterfly through the phenomenon of career chrysalis. No, professional experience is something truly important to new graduates out there, especially those who haven’t had as much time working in an office setting. Understanding how to represent your organization well and being familiar with the politics of professional life, whether that means comporting your language for student affairs or not wearing the boxers you slept in last night to work the next morning, can be crucial as you enter the professional world.
Sometimes I imagine that the writing and research you do in college goes away once you get your dream job. As if you will become Miranda Priestly and just have a vision of what you want, and then some poor highly-skilled people will work all night to make your vision come into reality. Nope, sorry (or maybe that it is your reality… then you can stop reading). At the Women’s Center, research and writing are at the backbone of what we do.
The plainest function of the Women’s Center is to make UMBC a better place for women and other minority students (for a more eloquent mission statement, go here); in operationalizing this mission, we have to continually make arguments, and we rely on research–sometimes our own–to justify them. For example, people know that sexual assault on college campuses is a big deal, but HOW and WHY do they know that? Somebody who was assumedly concerned about the welfare of sexual assault survivors on campus, raising awareness about this issue, and curbing rape culture decided to conduct some research. Now we have their work to thank for Take Back the Night, the Clothesline Project, and many of the other activist projects that the Women’s Center has taken the lead in planning. The Women’s Center’s own director, Jess Myers, conducted research about online anti-sexual assault activism.
The Women’s Center lives up to the expectations that are put upon any department under the umbrella of a “research university,” like UMBC. We encourage and advance research, and even do our own. By partnering with other departments, the Women’s Center is able to help promote student research, which is what happened to me. Working with both the Gender and Women’s Studies Department and Megan Tagle Adams at the Center, I was able to conduct original research and present it at URCAD. Independent research is an incredibly important part of being a UMBC student and, if you’re interested in going on to graduate school, it is integral.
One of the most important things that I’ve learned with the Women’s Center is how to be a good leader. None of us come to leadership from the same angle. Some of us are the ones who can stand on stage and rouse the crowd. Some of us are the ones who work hard to develop an idea into reality. Some of us just want to stimulate a conversation by listening and asking questions. No matter how you come at leadership, it is important to know that anyone can do it. It doesn’t take a cult of personality or a penchant for fine Italian pantsuits–it just takes you. Whether it’s through the mentorships with the best bosses in the world, Jess and Megan, or through the independence you are allowed while working on your own project, when you’re working with the Women’s Center, you learn so much about yourself as a leader, a team player, and how you can be better.
I think the Women’s Center is incredibly successful at encouraging what I’m going to call “responsible leadership”–a leadership that is founded on respect for others and social justice. We lead by listening and reflecting. We lead through solidarity among differences. We lead through attention to the power inequities that affect our relationships. We lead because we care and are passionate about positive social change. I am proud to have come out of the Women’s Center, not only a campus leader, but one that is thoughtful, sensitive, and ready to listen.
It’s not just that I’ve grown–it’s that I’ve been able to help my colleagues grow, as well. The staff at the Women’s Center is united in supporting one another and lifting each other up. As such, we are expected to do our best and push each other to be better. Coming into the Women’s Center, I knew I wanted to do big things on our campus, but I didn’t know how to make those things happen or where to even start. It was only by working with the Women’s Center as a team that we were able to make Critical Social Justice the important and sustainable initiative that it is today. I look back on the impact that CSJ has made with pride. I have affected change at UMBC, and the future looks bright. When I look back at the teamwork that was put into the program, it only makes everything feel so much more powerful.
Alright, this is where I’m going to get kind of abstract and very unapologetically sentimental.
I think the most important thing about my time with the Women’s Center, however, is that it was where I met my UMBC family. Some of my colleagues might see it differently, but I’m always inclined to understand relationships through kinship. See, my biological family is small. We’re just three people, so we have this thing where our friends become our family. For the longest time, I have had aunts, uncles, sisters, brothers, cousins who are nowhere near related to me–we just love each other, and that’s enough. That same kinship that comes so easily between myself and my big extended family, is also sown among us at the Women’s Center. I’ve cried in front of most of the Women’s Center staff–and not the cute cry. It’s that big, ball of emotion weighing down on your throat, gaggy cry. I’ve also laughed so hard that I had big warm happy tears dribble down my cheeks. The Women’s Center staff has cried together, laughed together, seen each other at our worst, at our best, and at our strangest. We’ve allowed a truly special amount of vulnerability between each other. We work hard to build each other up, and we also trust each other to challenge one another when we need it. It’s a powerful dynamic that we share, and it’s nothing less than a family of feminists and activists intent on supporting one another in the most radically caring ways.
I was going to end this blog post–my last blog post–with something like, “I don’t know what I would have done without the Women’s Center…” but I find it’s near impossible to even think about my life without the Women’s Center in it, because all of my experiences with the Center seem to be firmly rooted in my heart and my mind. I have been profoundly changed and inspired with this amazing group of people and their transformative ideas for the future.
Maybe there’s everything left to say. I could go on and on on about the Women’s Center for forever. I often do if you let me. But all I can think to end this post with is a simple thank you to the Women’s Center staff who’ve shared two of the most unforgettable years of my life. Thank you for being you and sharing in this phenomenal journey.