Sarah Steele holds the keys to the Women’s Center’s heart – and its doors and filing cabinets and every administrative undertaking. The first face you see when you walk in the Center (or at least that’s when Sarah’s receptionist desk faced the front door at the Corner location, before we had to move for an office overhaul), Sarah is the essence of calm, caring friendliness and impeccable professionalism. What’s more, she’s wicked smart and could run circles ‘round us in Russian and other subjects. She also has something in common with Elizabeth Taylor (but you have to read more to find out). We give you our very own Grace Slick, Sarah.
1. Tell us about your path to UVA, to where you are now and the work you’re currently doing for the Women’s Center.
After applying to a few schools and getting into some of them, I chose UVA because it was the only school that offered to pay my tuition. Well, I use the word “chose” loosely because the decision was basically made when my dad saw the scholarship offer and said, “That’s where you should go. It’s a great school, too.” After completing undergrad with a degree in Russian and Linguistics, I stayed on for grad school to continue my studies in Slavic Languages and Literatures because they offered me a fellowship (again, finances were a motivator).
After grad school and a few years living in Moscow teaching English, I lost my once diehard desire to become a professor of Russian and decided to work in education in a different way.
Back in Charlottesville, I woke up one morning to a hand-written note from my roommate shoved under my bedroom door with some scribble on it about a receptionist position at the UVA Women’s Center. It said something about “30 hours a week,” and I immediately thought, “That means no benefits” and almost didn’t call. (Side note: I’m apparently whimsical enough to take off to Russia for a couple years and spend my entire twenties “finding myself,” but practical enough to narrow my job search to include jobs with health insurance.) However, I did call that morning and am so glad I did.
My position at the Women’s Center has expanded far beyond receptionist, and I have learned so much that has prepared me for whatever my future holds. I work as an assistant to our Director, Abby Palko; hone my interpersonal skills as office coordinator and front desk manager; and even supervise the Legal Clinic interns. No matter what I’m doing, I’m usually helping someone, which is what I’ve always wanted to do, even if I didn’t always know how specifically during my long and winding path here.
2. Who would you most like to meet (living or dead) for coffee?
Richard Simmons! He’s such a positive and accepting person – a true role model for anyone who’s ever doubted what they can achieve.
3. Who would you most like to meet (living or dead) for an after-work drink?
Anna Akhmatova. She was a modernist Russian poet who lived and wrote in the first half of the twentieth century. Her writing almost single-handedly makes me glad I learned Russian because the English translations just don’t do it justice. It’s simultaneously raw and lyrical because she was always writing about whatever she was experiencing, whether it was a flirtation, a great love, or a broken relationship/abandonment. I would want to sit with her in a quiet booth in a wine bar and just listen to her tell me anything she wanted about life, love, loss, etc.
4. Who would play you in the movie of your life?
My brother-in-law once told me I looked like a young Grace Slick (lead singer of the ‘60’s psychedelic rock band Jefferson Airplane). If we could build a time machine, then I would love for her to play me in a movie. She was – and probably still is – really cool.
5. What’s your most unpopular opinion?
I don’t know how unpopular this opinion is, but I believe that you can glean wisdom or good advice from practically any source. That means that I think even if you don’t agree with anything else that a certain person has said or stands for, it’s possible that person can say something that you really agree with or makes you think critically about something or even inspires you or changes your life in some way. For example, then-incumbent Republican Senator John Warner was the speaker at my undergraduate graduation. My friends chose to zone out immediately when he started speaking. However, I, with grad school looming in the very near future and feeling nervous and unsure of my academic skills because of my 3.1 GPA, which I very wrongly thought was some kind of failure back then, chose to listen. I was pleasantly surprised at the senator’s words. Basically, he told a story of his own school experience as a youth, highlighting the fact that he was near the bottom of his class in undergrad, but still managed to get into law school from which he also graduated with a less than stellar GPA. He then went on to become a United States senator and marry Elizabeth Taylor (!). Pretty cool. As I sat there listening, I thought, “That’s like me! Maybe I can do okay in grad school and in my chosen career one day, too!” Just having that confirmation from somebody – anybody – telling me that grades weren’t as big of a deal as I had made them, gave me a certain amount of confidence and made me feel not so alone. I may not have agreed with all of his political views, but Senator Warner imparted a little bit of good advice to me that day, and I am grateful for that. I never would have gotten that advice had I not been open-minded enough to listen to him and separate the words from the source.
6. What’s one object in your life you’re so attached to it has to be with you every day?
This one’s easy – my water bottle. Specifically, it is a Camelbak water bottle with the UVA logo on it. I have drunk at least two to three liters of water a day since I was a teenager because I really believe in the total body health benefits of it. I half-jokingly say it’s an extension of my right hand. I take it with me everywhere I go every day. It even follows me from my desk at work to every meeting I attend, even if it’s almost empty. Heaven forbid, I’m without it for a whole hour! Again, that was only half-jokingly.