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Palko POV: Students Spring into Action

Academia operates in the shadow of the ivory tower, a perception that studying can (should? does?) occur at a remove. Our students, however, are not content to withdraw from the world for four years while they pursue a degree (if such a withdrawal would even be possible). I have a front row seat for the multiple ways they deeply integrate learning and action. Learning about the detrimental impact of unhealthy cultural gender norms on our social interactions and other ways that gender influences our lived realities is not enough for them. They are driven to share and act on this knowledge with their friends, classmates, and members of the local community. Whether it’s a Survivor Support Network training or a Body Project session for fellow ‘Hoos, a truth-telling article on Iris, or the moments that make up a year-long relationship with an area middle schooler, our interns are passing on their new knowledge. 

Not surprisingly then, some of the highlights of my week are the times I spend with our students, including meetings with my own intern and the hour I spend in the classroom with our whole intern cohort. Often, thoughts from the morning meeting with my intern spill over into deeper reflections with the larger cohort in their afternoon class. Today, a cluster of moments coalesced into an observation. My intern shared her progress on her senior thesis, I sat down to some tasks that demand the kind of focused concentration that multiple devices spread across my desk make difficult, and social media posts about my alma mater’s annual day of giving prompted reminiscences about my senior year experience. Getting to the classroom, I was struck by ways that it was so much easier for my generation. 

Looking at their phones, their laptops, their papers and notebooks, I thought, again, as I have before, that there is no effortless way for them to enter a focused, distraction-free space. And so I shared with them this observation: in a crucial way, their generation has it harder than mine did. It surprised them, I think – not that technology simultaneously complicates while simplifying, contracts while expanding, but that, as one of them put it, someone my age was acknowledging this disadvantage to them.

Spring of my senior year of college, I got my first email address. The first twenty-two years of my life were as palpably shaped by the absence of digital communication as theirs has been indelibly shaped by its presence. Across the divide of this radical difference, I witness the phenomenal work they dedicate their energy to, work that will change lives and their community.

A few weeks ago, interns from our Women, Girls and Global Justice team hosted the second annual Black Womanhood in College Workshop, a day of programming on Grounds for young women from two of the area high schools. Each young woman who participated that day made the decision to commit a day of her weekend to exploring a potential future path. Watching the Black Women Leaders panel from the back of the room, I paused to honor the high school students' self-attention to their future as well as the time and work that our interns dedicated to creating and hosting an event that provided the younger women with needed space to envision that future’s fullest possibilities. While the participants heard inspiring words from the keynote speaker, Nicki Washington, about the necessity of “lifting while climbing,” they also experienced ways that the Women’s Center interns live out Dr. Washington’s call during their time in our internship.

Staff and interns Hosting Black Womanhood in College Workshop

When people ask me what’s special or unique about the Women’s Center internship program, what makes the work we do different from other university women’s centers, this workshop is a perfect answer. We don’t just develop and offer programming (though that is valuable). We sponsor collaborative efforts like this. Last year, two of Jaronda Miller-Bryant's interns told her that they wanted to make an impact on younger women of color. They didn’t know what they wanted to do, but they were committed to doing something. Jaronda worked with them to hone their thoughts. As the concept of a workshop like this evolved, she knew the scope was right for interns and that it presented a new opportunity for the Women’s Center to reach this group of young women. As Jaronda puts it, “This is a great example of how students have great ideas. The workshop was conceptualized by students and taken on as programming by us.” The Women’s Center is proud to sponsor this workshop.

As Jaronda points out, it’s important that black women understand that they have a place in higher education and affirm that they belong here. The workshop offered high school students the opportunity to participate in a smaller scaled conversation about UVA that anticipates a larger national conversation. The day offered another important benefit to its participants. Students today never have a moment to themselves, surrounded as they are by social media and technology, but the young women who participated made a moment for themselves. They claimed this Saturday for themselves.

Local Students Attend Black Womanhood in College Workshop

Forsythia blooms forever remind me of one of my dearest mentors from my undergraduate years, Catherine. Long before I could, she saw the scope of possibilities open to me, and crucially, helped me see them. Sadly, she passed away before I could share much of what I now cherish most about my life with her. But each spring, the forsythia blooms again, reminding me of her encouragement, and I trust that in some way I can’t explain, she does know. In planning the Black Womanhood in College workshop, our interns devoted their time and talent to creating a day in which the workshop participants could discover the scope of possibilities open to them. In turn, Jaronda led the interns through a similar self-discovery process with her mentorship during the planning process. Everyone ended the day with an expanded vision for the future.

Cherishing memories, celebrating accomplishments, acknowledging struggles: these keep us grounded in the moment, and the Women’s Center takes as a special charge the opportunity to contribute to the collective memory of the university. In spring 2020, we will mark the 100th anniversary of the admittance of (white) women into the professional schools. Women transformed this institution through a multitude of actions, grand and mundane. Consider this your sneak peak at a coming attraction: we’ve gathered colleagues from across Grounds to plan a commemoratory event of this anniversary. We want to hear the stories that we know are waiting to be told. Contact me if you have stories of the early years to share (yourself, your mother, your grandmother).

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