As the Lehigh community continues to address the complex and often challenging issue of diversity, the efforts of several departments are making significant contributions in creating a welcoming, inclusive campus environment built upon respect.
Lehigh’s Women’s Center
is one such area. During the past five years, the Women’s Center has enjoyed strong success in creating partnerships with key campus departments to advocate for gender equity and student empowerment.
“Lehigh Women’s Center, under the leadership of director Kristin Handler, has achieved enormous success,” says John Smeaton, vice provost for student affairs. “The center has become an integral part of our campus community and is widely recognized as a strong partner that works with academic departments to further Lehigh’s goals for a diverse and inclusive environment.”
Handler says that she is very proud that the center has become a vital resource and vibrant contributor to Lehigh’s campus culture. “The Women’s Center is recognized as a leader on gender and diversity issues, and has established a campus-wide sexual violence prevention program, but there is still much work to be done,” says Handler.
That work will be continued under the direction of new leadership beginning this July when Handler steps down as director. After leading the Women’s Center for the past six years, Handler plans to return to her scholarly work and complete her doctoral degree from the University of California, Berkeley. A national search to replace Handler will begin immediately, says Smeaton, in order to ensure a smooth transition.
Lehigh provost Mohamed El-Aasser says that the ties between academics and student life developed under Handler’s guidance have played a critically important role in Lehigh’s campus diversity efforts. “Partnerships, like the ones forged between the Women’s Center and the Women’s Studies Program, are essential in order to ensure sustainability and continuity in addressing gender issues on campus.”
Started in 1989 by a graduate student in computer science, the Women’s Center was rebuilt from the ground up five years ago in order to better serve the needs of Lehigh’s women students.
Many of the early goals of the Women’s Center included building community among women; addressing women as a diverse group with diverse needs and interests; educating campus about gender and women’s issues; promoting communication between women in different areas of campus; empowering students to address gender issues with peers; providing a more visible and intuitive resource for students with issues like harassment, sexual assault and eating disorders; and promoting a more diverse and inclusive campus in all dimensions.
Over the past five years, the Women’s Center has accomplished many of its early goals and much more. Some notable achievements include:
• Sponsoring lectures by some of the world’s most accomplished women, among them Gloria Steinem, Angela Davis, Adrienne Rich, Benazir Bhutto, Gloria Anzaldua, Margaret Cho, Bernice Sandler, Barbara Ehrenreich, Karen Armstrong, JoAnn Falletta, Joan Morgan, and MC Lyte.
• Organizing the campus-wide celebration of 30 Years of Women at Lehigh in 2001-2002.
• Collaborating with academic departments across the University on major events such as the “Say Word! Hip Hop Theatre Festival,” the “Life in Art” gallery talk series, the “On Human Rights” lecture series, and the “Feminism, Fundamentalism and the Future” lecture series.
• Creating a full-time professional sexual violence prevention coordinator position in the Women’s Center and founding a campus-wide prevention program, which includes mandatory peer education programs on sexual assault during first-year orientation, the 24/7 Break the Silence peer hotline, and year-round prevention education programming.
• Establishing a credit-bearing internship, Women’s Studies 373, in the Women’s Center.
• Helping to establish Mentornet, a national e-mentoring program for women engineers, in RCEAS, and building bridges between the Women’s Studies program and RCEAS.
• Founding the Women of Color Alliance, which started The Movement, the campus-wide student activist group on diversity.
• Developing a mission and goals statement that has been used as a model for women’s centers around the country by the Council for the Advancement of Standards in Higher Education (CAS), which publishes national standards of practice for student services and programs.
• Supporting an annual student production of The Vagina Monologues
• Publishing a monthly online newsletter, The Women’s Word
, and an annual literary journal, Origyns
Creating a better climate for women
Handler says that she is confident that the new director will be able to build upon the strong foundation that has been established over the past five years, and should continue to emphasize student empowerment.
“Since we cannot create a culture that values women without the partnership of students, the Women’s Center is committed to student empowerment,” she says. “Many of our programs on body image, sexual assault and other issues are created by our student employees, interns and volunteers.”
Among the Women’s Center’s current goals are to continue the work with the Movement and the University Diversity Initiative to address racism, sexism and homophobia as interlocking forms of oppression; to ensure that issues affecting women and the LGBTQ community are included in the definition of “diversity;” to build on the sexual violence prevention program by marketing the Break the Silence peer hotline; to develop a peer education program with the Student Athlete Mentors and the athletic department; to educate faculty about sexual violence resources and how to refer students to them; and to secure a permanent sexual violence prevention programming budget.
“I’m sure the work that we’ve started on student empowerment, diversity, and sexual violence will continue to move forward and play an important role in Lehigh’s overall diversity efforts,” says Handler. “I also hope that the Women’s Center will be able to grow in new directions as well, now that the foundation has been laid.”