When I first got involved with the Women’s Center two years ago, someone (I wish I could remember who) told me that activism was kind of like dominos–you just had to get your foot in the door and then more opportunities would fall into place. It seemed like a stretch to me at the time but it proved true in so many ways. I emailed the Women’s Center about volunteer opportunities and was referred to Brandy Turnbow, who suggested I get involved with the Women’s Center’s production of The Vagina Monologues. The first thing I ever did with the Women’s Center–the first thing I did on campus period (besides show up for class)–was tabling to promote the show. When Brandy asked if I was interested in tabling, I didn’t even know what tabling was; I didn’t know anything about Eve Ensler or The Vagina Monologues, and I certainly wasn’t comfortable talking about why a production like hers was relevant and necessary, but I stood behind that table anyways, painting vaginas and handing out flyers with women who were far more passionate and involved on campus than I ever dreamed of being at the time.
Two years later, I found myself sitting across a table from Brandy yet again, this time in an interview for a social media student worker position in the Women’s Center–a job that would have never even been on my radar if it weren’t for my experiences with the Women’s Center over the past two years. If it weren’t for the staff in the Women’s Center and the opportunities made available through there, I’m not sure where I would be at this point in my career… I don’t even know if I would be in grad school right now. So much of my academic experience has been contingent on my activism outside of the classroom and WILL has been integral to this process for me.
As you may know, last year was WILL’s inaugural year. WILL is meant to be a multi-year program that recruits individuals at the beginning of their college careers. I interviewed for WILL at the end of my fourth year (my first of two “senior” years); at the time, I wasn’t sure if there would be a place for me in the organization, especially since I would only be in the program for one year. I was beyond grateful when I was accepted to the program and I cannot say enough how important WILL has proven to my development. I don’t want to use this space to reflect on my experiences with WILL last year, but rather I want to talk about how fortunate I am to be returning to this program as a graduate student in a role that was never meant to exist in the first place, and how this opportunity relates to the domino metaphor I mentioned at the beginning of this post.
I am the first alumnus to return to the program and I am paving the way for WILL members to continue their involvement after they graduate. My purpose in the group has shifted from my own personal growth to the development of the group and the program as a whole; with that being said, shifting from the role of participant to the one I’m in now is very much a learning process in itself. Beyond that, my goals for this year are as follows: first, to serve as a mentor to the other participants; second, to assist in facilitating meetings and workshops; lastly, to fulfill the role of process observer (observing group dynamics, programmatic effectiveness and impact, etc.). We just had our first meeting of the semester and it was the first time I was forced to grapple with what this new role means. I facilitated the community expectations segment of our meeting and I was surprised at how different this felt from being a participant in a similar activity at our retreat in April. In a lot of ways, these weren’t my expectations anymore, and even though I had a million suggestions about what could make our group a safe(r), more productive, more inclusive space, I had to remind myself that this experience belongs to the participants now in a way that’s not mine anymore. That’s not to say that I’m not a member of the community (I am) or that those expectations don’t apply to me (they definitely do), just that they are no longer mine to dictate or to enforce.
On another note, I led my first discussion and lecture this week in the class I am TAing for, and I couldn’t help but think about how much confidence I had going into the classroom based on my experiences with WILL and even just our first meeting where I was in my new role. I am constantly reminded not just of the opportunities I’ve been given because of my participation in WILL, like being a peer leader at ARJ this summer and having the opportunity to interview for the social media student worker position in the Women’s Center, but also the skills that I have developed (and am continuing to develop) with the program.
WILL is intended to provide practical skills and leadership opportunities to individuals who have faced gender-based discrimination, whether it be on campus or beyond. If I could give any advice to the participants in WILL, or really to anyone who is thinking about getting involved on campus, in an activist or leadership development group, or even just in an organization or event that matters to them, it would be to understand that opportunity as a domino–to see what it can offer them now and where it can take them in the future.
Corinne Patterson is a graduate student in the 4+1 program in the Department of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. She also serves the role of social media student worker in the Women’s Center. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.