When Rita Jones and her family arrived in the Lehigh Valley in late December, she faced a week of gloomy skies, a dizzying maze of unfamiliar streets and an unnerving cultural shift from her sunny Northern Colorado home.
"Everything just looked strange to me, from the very narrow streets with the odd names and the very tall buildings that seemed to go right up to the corner,” she says. “I was used to an orderly, numbered grid system for the streets, and it was all a bit overwhelming.”
Nearly two months later, she’s navigating another new path as director of Lehigh’s Women’s Center, where she hopes to build on the success of the center’s first few years and to create a resource with broad appeal to all members of the Lehigh community.
“It’s a very different atmosphere here than at the University of Northern Colorado,” she says. “First of all, there is the size. We were a school of 12,000 students, it was a state school, and it was fairly well known as a suitcase school, with many of the students gone on the weekends. I’m really excited to be on a campus where the students are really here
Jones’s goal is to build on that sense of community by creating a safe, welcoming haven “where students can talk and spend time on Sunday evenings, or between classes, and where they can build real relationships by spending time with one another.
“I’m really excited to be a part of that,” she adds. “It was also exciting to even go through the interviewing process, and gain a sense of the passion and commitment on the part of the people I met here—faculty, staff and the students. It was clear that Lehigh does a very good job training future leaders and I’ve been very impressed with the students I’ve been able to work with so far.”
When she was only days into her new role, it was also very apparent to Jones that former Women’s Center director Kristin Handler “did a fantastic job starting up the Center and creating a really solid foundation for someone to come in and continue it,” Jones says.
“I feel that I’m on very strong footing, based on all that she’s done” she says of Handler, who vacated the post she held for six years to complete her doctoral degree from the University of California-Berkeley.
Jones was hired for her new role after a broad search that attracted candidates from all over the country. The former coordinator and assistant professor of the Women’s Studies program at the University of Northern Colorado maintained a close association with that school’s student-run Women’s Resource Center. She also created and assisted with academic panel discussions on issues such as women in spirituality, or classic and contemporary writings on women’s issues.
A graduate of Albertson College of Idaho with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English, Jones earned both her master’s degree and Ph.D. in English from Washington State University.
Susan Lantz, associate dean for academic life and student transitions, headed up the search committee that met with several candidates through the fall semester, and was impressed with Jones’ enthusiasm for the new role.
“Throughout the interview process, I appreciate how thoroughly Rita researched Lehigh, the Women's Center, the faculty and the climate for students,” Lantz says. “It was clearly evident that in her search for her next professional role, Rita was looking for the right fit for her work with students and her academic work as well. From Rita's enthusiasm for creative and meaningful programming to the amazing interactions she described with her past students, I sincerely felt that Rita was the right person for the role of director.”
Michelle Issadore, the current assistant director of the Women’s Center who served in an interim capacity during the transitional period, said that students who met Jones during the interview process “knew she’d be a breath of fresh air.”
“She’s assessing the Center and its role here at Lehigh and creating a vision for the future,” Issadore says. “I look forward to all she will accomplish.”
“Our doors are open to everyone”
Already the Women’s Center has a full roster of activities
planned for the spring semester, and Jones credits Issadore for a comprehensive, well-organized schedule that will have broad appeal to the Lehigh student body. A lecture on raunch culture by author Ariel Levy will be part of a broader series of events geared toward discussions on sexuality, gender identification, feminist themes in literature and movies and a discussion on Levy’s most recent book, “Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture.”
Jones also hopes to work closely with the faculty of the Women’s Studies program, and with students groups and organizations to gain a sense of varying perspectives—including that of the male student population.
“I welcome their involvement in honest discussions,” she says. “Our doors are open to everyone.”
Although she hesitates to outline a long-term strategic vision at the outset—“I’m the sort of person who likes to take my time and learn as much about the context of the situation before taking action.”—she is able to paint in broad brushstrokes.
“I’d like to see the Center evolve more in the role of leadership and I think we’re already poised for that—the pieces are all here,” she says. “And I do think we’d like to offer more services to graduate students. I’d like to create a sense of welcome for them and better understand their different needs.”
She’d also like to reach out to Lehigh’s growing population of international students.
“I want to make sure the Women’s Center meets their needs and interests and that we’re available to them, and to all students,” she says.
Sharon Basso, associate vice provost and dean of students, says that the positive impact Jones has made is already noticeable.
"We are thrilled that Rita has joined the Lehigh family,” Basso says. “She brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to this role, and she and Michelle make a great team.”