Nine months into her tenure as director of the Lehigh University Women’s Center
, Rita Jones is charting a new path for the future of the program that strives to foster an inclusive, equitable and supportive campus climate.
“We’re launching a new direction,” says Jones, the former coordinator and assistant professor of the Women’s Studies program at the University of Northern Colorado. “We want to expand beyond our focus on our undergraduate population to establish a connection with the broader Lehigh community.”
By drawing on her own experiences and benchmarking against other institutions, Jones developed a four-pronged approach that combines leadership, advocacy, research and outreach to engage undergraduate and graduate students, staff, faculty, community organizations and alumni.
Jones hopes to not only support other programs offered by existing groups on campus, but raise the visibility of the Women’s Center as well.
Ultimately, Jones says, “we want to strengthen our alliances and look for different ways to work together toward common goals.”
The Women’s Center was founded at Lehigh in 1989 by a graduate student, and rebuilt from the ground up under Kristen Handler, who served from 2000 until 2006, when she left to complete her doctoral degree from the University of California, Berkeley.
Sharon Basso, associate vice provost and dean of students, says she is excited with the further evolution of the Women’s Center under Jones.
“Rita has done a remarkable job of creating a deliberate plan to move the Women's Center forward in some very exciting ways by building on the strong foundation that was established over the past seven years,” Basso says. “There is a real energy and enthusiasm that Rita and (assistant director) Michelle Issadore bring to that space and it is clearly becoming an increasingly popular hub of dialogue, activity, and thought-provoking discussions that engage all of our campus community.”
The Center’s raised profile has already motivated a record number of students to express their interest in the co-ed sexual violence peer educator group, Break the Silence, according to Issadore, who also serves as sexual violence prevention coordinator.
“Break the Silence is in its fourth year at Lehigh, which means almost every student on campus has been impacted,” Issadore says. “This first-year class also seems active about getting involved early in their Lehigh careers. We're thrilled with the response and hope to have a great pool of applicants for the spring.”
The Women’s Center is also taking the lead in sparking political debate on campus through a recent forum on the selection of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as Republican Senator John McCain’s vice presidential pick. That event drew both male and female members of the student body and Lehigh faculty, and provoked a spirited discussion on sexism in the media and gender-neutral politics.
More events on the horizon
On the horizon are a day-long Feminism in Practice Conference that will be held in the Rauch Business Center on Saturday, Nov. 15 that is being organized by two graduate students—Liz Vogtsberger and Kristina Fennelly—who are interning this semester in the Women’s Center.
A talk on domestic violence in the LGBTQA community is slated for Thursday, Oct. 16 in observation of GLBT History Month, is being organized by Issadore and Chris Diggs, of Career Services.
Jones also wants to involve the Women’s Center in campus-wide discussions, such as a planned talk on the leading role of women environmentalists for Women’s History Month in March.
“With programs such as the Environmental Initiative, the STEPS program and the new Toyota Grant (which provides nearly $320,000 to support the university’s efforts to improve environmental literacy), Lehigh is in a great position to be a part of that discussion,” she says.
Several campus events are also planned to mark Domestic Violence Awareness Month in October, Sexual Awareness Assault Month in April, and Healthy Body Image Week in March. Jones and her staff will work closely with the Women’s Studies program and will honor the history of the Center on Lehigh campus through a series of events. A Women’s Center Recognition Reception will also be held to recognize LU women who make a significant impact in inspiring others.
“We’re trying to build that sense of community in a different sense,” Jones says. “There are so many different ‘women’s groups’ on campus—there are women in sports, in business, in academia. We want to bring them all together to recognize the vastly diverse experiences and points of view to reinforce how women may sometimes find solidarity when working toward common goals, even as those women retain their context-specific identities.”