Val's Blog - #ChooseToChallenge for International Women's Day
Sometimes you are challenged to think about who you are and who you aspire to be. This particular challenge came to me from our office marketing director in hopes that I would #ChooseToChallenge by writing a blog entry about my experiences in higher education and share my thoughts and experiences with women who want to move into leadership in higher education.
Today, March 8th is International Women’s Day. The website features many inspirational stories which encourage women to embrace the challenges they encounter.
So let's all choose to challenge.
How will you help forge a gender-equal world?
Celebrate women's achievements. Raise awareness against bias. Take action for equality.
As a woman in a professional career thinking about the challenges involved in getting to where I am now, I thought that I should look back and appreciate the journeys of the women before me. Starting with my own family, my mother, following in my grandmother’s footsteps, attended college and became a high school teacher. She was one of those teachers who if spotted outside of school, would elicit hugs and excited conversations from former and current students. I was always amazed at her joyful connection with her students.
I recently had to clean out my old family home and now have many boxes waiting for me to immerse myself in their memories. Writing this article prompted me to look at some of my mother’s childhood books and I was struck by a string of coincidences. In The Adventure Girls in The Air by Clair Blank, teenage girls often described as “rebellious” help solve a mystery involving a pilot who crashed on a foggy island. “Best book printed” is written in pencil on the first page to let me know my mother’s high opinion of this literature. It was published in 1938 in Akron, Ohio, not far from where I live now. My Mom would have been eight years old when this was published. The age of my granddaughters for whom I am currently writing a mystery book. I send them a chapter to read and then read them aloud to them over a video chat. It is a connection that perhaps transcends generations.
It was not common for women of previous generations to go to college, but when they did and became confident and capable of earning their own living, they were often subjected to a world that did not believe that was possible. My mother, as a teacher, often earned more than my father did as a farmer. This was a fact that local businessmen or bankers seemed unable to comprehend as they insisted on her husband’s signature on financial transactions. I can remember some heated encounters and her sheer stubborn determination in dealing with those who assumed she was incapable of handling her own money. I witnessed many such encounters throughout her life and I’m sure that her “rebelliousness” shaped me and formed my sense of self.
Women often encounter situations that require that “rebelliousness” just to accomplish what should be an ordinary goal. In some situations, that “rebelliousness” is needed just to get an education.
I was recently involved with work being done in Nigeria to encourage education for girls. In 2014, Boko Haram, a jihadist terror group, kidnapped 246 girls from their school in northeastern Nigeria. This created a chilling effect on the education of girls in an area where educational opportunity was already very limited.
Nigeria is Africa’s most populous nation and has its largest economy. Over 62% of the population is under the age of 24 and only 1 in 4 Nigerian high school graduates can find a desired seat in a university. It is an emerging nation with a young population who yearning for education.
On my first trip to Nigeria, my Kent State colleague and I visited several Nigerian universities and met with the political and religious leaders who had an earnest desire to improve educational opportunities for all children but especially for girls who were often denied the opportunity to go to school. As I visited the schools for girls, I was welcomed with bright eyes and wide smiles. I was in awe of the determination of the girls who must overcome so much just to attend school.
Although we were able to obtain a USAID grant which allowed several Kent State professors to work with teachers in some of the states most traumatized by militant extremists, I am left with the realization of the immense educational resources available at Kent State, the exceptional potential but lack of resources in Nigeria, and the seemingly insurmountable chasm that separates resources from need. It will be through the efforts of “rebellious” women that the chasm will be bridged.
I was not denied the opportunity to attend school and I grew up in a time when education was highly valued by society and well-funded. Growing up in a low-income, rural area, the school was the most modern building in town. Although there were some mixed messages along the way, there was an expectation that I would go to college.
Stuck under the flap of the back cover of the Adventure Girls book were several index cards. They were my high school graduation speech note cards. In the speech, I mention that graduation is one of the few times in life that we receive recognition of our achievements and that most rewards in life must come from within. I concluded my speech by saying that we had received so much, it was now time for us to start giving and ended with a quote from John Steinbeck stating that “The quality of the gift is the measure of the man.”
I was relieved and happy to have found that my words from long ago still matched quite well with my current views. I have found that happiness is an internal reflection and enjoyment of life is not something that can be demanded, but rather something we give to ourselves.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve realized that I have been very lucky, and although my childhood dreams might have conjured up a more exotic life story, I believe one of my greatest gifts has been my ability to find joy in all that I do and to appreciate and take pleasure in the success of others. It is part of the culture of an institute of learning to view helping others succeed as an essential component of your own success. This is a culture in which I have found a rewarding career.
If I’m to be entirely honest, one of my hesitations about writing this blog post and giving career advice is that I am still slightly embarrassed about my trajectory into my professional life. Growing up in the ’70s, reading various women’s magazines, made me quite aware that my career (or personal life, looks, social standing, sense of style, or any personal attribute) fails utterly and completely to meet the incredible standards of “success” as portrayed on those glossy pages. My struggles against media portrayals of women to develop a realistic image of my own successes pale in comparison with the difficulties of young women today who are barraged by unhealthy social media messages. Moving beyond the obvious Vogue failures in my life, I also had my confidence undermined by seemingly becoming a victim to the oft-warned peril mentioned throughout our school years of “failing to work to potential”.
I veered from the prescribed path to college and graduation. It wasn’t until after having three wonderful children that I finished college. I remember that my mom really wanted to attend my college graduation, but I didn’t go to it because I thought it was too late. I felt that if I didn’t do it in the expected timeframe, then it didn’t really count. It has taken me many years to figure out the foolishness of that view.
My current career came about because of changes happening in the world. After a few years of using my undergraduate degree in finance, I decided to pursue a master’s degree in a new program in information architecture to help me move into the exciting new world being ushered in by the internet. In order to get some work experience in this new field, I took a job at Kent State’s New Media Center. The job available to me, however, was as a student employee. It took every ounce of humility I had to give up my “real” job, and as a mother of three, become a student employee. Again, the perceived ding to my ego was misplaced. It was a fantastic place to work filled with creative opportunities and it launched me into my career in higher education.
Photography is a hobby my husband and I enjoy doing together. Looking at some of the work of female street photographers, I am struck by their love of their work and dedication to improving their skills in order to more successfully convey the essence of what they see.
Dorothea Lange’s famous photograph, Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California, taken in 1936, highlighted the stoic struggle for survival of a mother during the depression. Lange once said that “Photography takes an instant out of time, altering life by holding it still.” As a photographer, she held life still so others could see the suffering taking place in their own society. She was a woman who believed she could impact social change by using her camera to help others see. The woman in the photograph who was in a destitute situation, and who preferred anonymity, allowed herself to be seen in the hopes that it might bring about change. These are examples of women who would, long before hashtagging, #ChooseToChallenge.
There are so many historical examples of women who did #ChooseToChallege and so many who still do, every day, to make the world a place where gender is not a barrier. My challenge to myself is to find the joy in all that I do and to truly appreciate and facilitate the success of others. I hope to continue my mother’s Adventure Girl “rebelliousness” wherever it is needed and pass it along to my children and grandchildren so that they will never hesitate to #ChooseToChallenge in their quests to make the world a better place.