Six years after graduating from the University of Mary Washington, Sam Carter ’14 still draws daily on some of the lessons she learned as an undergrad.
“Everyone has a different cultural experience,” said Carter, a Women’s and Gender Studies major who’s now a digital director for the House Budget Committee majority staff. “It’s important that we understand that.”
Carter was back on campus yesterday to celebrate the program’s 10th anniversary. Through this interdisciplinary major, students explore the intersections of gender, race, class, ethnicity and sexual orientation to gain an understanding of the breadth of human experience. Graduates use the perspectives they acquire in the classroom to inform careers in such fields as media, law, health, education and social work, and to influence and inspire future generations.
Mary Washington students had been declaring women’s studies as a special major when, a decade ago, UMW’s administration decided it was time to launch a standardized Women’s and Gender Studies program, said Allyson Poska, who served six years as its founding director.
“The program is critical to the mission of UMW,” said Kristin Marsh, who led Women’s and Gender Studies after Poska. “We are a university committed to diversity and inclusion, and that means being vigilant and active on issues of social justice on our campus and in the community, as well as providing a curriculum that honors students with different backgrounds, experiences and identities.”
Current director Surupa Gupta said that while the program is small – there are now 15 declared majors – its strength lies in its interdisciplinary nature. With only three course requirements, students can craft their own paths, handpicking electives from 17 disciplines taught by over 45 affiliated faculty members.
Students also complete a personalized capstone project, exploring a topic of interest in depth, with guidance from a professor. Each spring, they present their findings at the program’s Undergraduate Research Forum.
“They become confident in thinking critically, speaking and writing effectively, and engaging with the larger community on social justice issues,” Marsh said.
Outside the classroom, Women’s and Gender Studies students have opportunities to learn from visiting scholars, and intern and volunteer with community partners like Empowerhouse and Rappahannock Council Against Sexual Assault. They gain activism and organizing experience through campus groups like Feminist Majority, Women of Color, Planned Parenthood Generation Action, the WGST Club and UMW’s new NAACP chapter.
Aissata Traore ’13, one of UMW’s first Women’s and Gender Studies majors, has integrated discussions of gender equity into her work, from interning with the State Department in Rwanda to serving as a Rangel Fellow in Nancy Pelosi’s congressional office.
“The program helped me become comfortable with talking with and learning from people that may not share the same viewpoint or perspective as me,” said Traore, who now works in the global health field. “I think that’s becoming increasingly important these days.
Paige McKinsey ’15 put the skills she gained into play as a Peace Corps volunteer in Togo, West Africa, where she advocated for girls’ education – the focus of her studies at UMW – and organized a science camp for girls in her village.
“I loved seeing them come out of their shells and develop a self-confidence I had not seen when we first met,” said McKinsey, a legal assistant who’s pursuing a master’s degree in international development.
Like McKinsey, senior Rebecca Jacobi plans to use the lessons she’s learned in UMW’s Women’s and Gender Studies program to make a difference in the Peace Corps, where she’ll focus on maternal and reproductive health. Sophie Mestas, a senior who works at a D.C. public relations firm, hopes to launch a platform to promote women’s and gender rights.
“One of the most significant things someone can do to support a marginalized group’s rights,” Mestas said, “is to be authentic and true to their own lived experience and open to learning about others.”