Today, March 31, marks the end of the annual month-long celebration of women’s incredible impact on our world and society.
March is Women’s History Month, it’s the time when we celebrate amazing leaders such as Malala Yousafzai, Amelia Earhart, Rosa Parks, Greta Thunberg and Michelle Obama, to name a few. Those names represent just a fraction of powerful and admirable women, but we also have many inspiring women right here on Fairfield University’s campus who deserve recognition.
Perhaps what is most important to recognize is the interconnectedness of every powerful woman to the next.
Emily Orlando, Ph.D, professor of English at Fairfield University, said it well when she wrote via email: “I stand on the shoulders of giants. I have succeeded because others have opened doors for me and because I work hard and I love what I do.”
Orlando, a recent President of the Edith Wharton Society, a group of scholars founded in 1983 dedicated to the continued study and appreciation of Wharton’s impact on the American literary canon, noted a change in the professional area of higher education, as well as a change within the student body: more women putting themselves out there and finding success.
Reflecting on her own career as a professor, Orlando wrote of her own experience as a college student in the 1990s that: “I can only think of one woman who managed to climb the academic ladder up to full professorship.”
And now, Orlando is surrounded by a network of women who act as leaders in academia.
One of those women is Karen Donoghue, the vice president for student life at Fairfield University.
Donoghue graduated from Fairfield in 2003, and during her years as a student she was already a leader. She was the first woman to be elected the Fairfield University Student Association President before she ended up continuing her career at her alma mater.
These women both recognize the significance of relationships with other women in finding their success. For Orlando, she expresses her appreciation for women by designing literature courses that focus on women.
Orlando shared her reasoning for this: “As the critic Paul Lauter has shown, successful writers who were women, working-class or persons of color got dropped out of the literary canon when it was built in the 1920s. That canon (list of classics) was constructed by a white male professoriate.”
Bringing women writers back into the forefront, as Orlando describes, has also found increasing popularity among students, as the course fills rather quickly from students across various disciplines.
Not only do these courses represent a change from just a few decades back, they also represent the shift in the general mindset of society, particularly of the younger generation as they come into adulthood.
Orlando noted, “When I came to Fairfield in 2007, not one of my students would admit, in front of the class, to being a feminist. Now, the overwhelming majority of my students, even the men, who take my classes identify, quite proudly, as feminist.”
And the practice of celebrating and recognizing the women around you does not always relate to the past. Those around us everyday can inspire us just as much as those who came before.
Donoghue experienced this when she was on this campus as a student.
“I made a solid group of friends, and was mentored by some amazing faculty and staff. I was encouraged by this supportive community to run for FUSA,” Donoghue shared.
That sense of support is still felt by current students, thanks to amazing faculty and staff members like Orlando and Donoghue.
Brigid Belger ‘22 is a passionate leader on our campus, and she is not hesitant to share her admiration of and thanks to the role models that surround her.
Belger is the co-president of The Concordium, a new club that pairs students with members of the elderly community with the hopes to eradicate loneliness through reciprocal conversations. She also serves as the treasurer of the Social Work club, which she helped get running last year. Belger holds other leadership positions as the president of Club Swim and an alumni mentor in the Ignatian Residential College.
Aside from working with a group of other women to bring The Concordium to Fairfield, Belger has found herself supported by an entire community of strong women, particularly her advisor, Kim Oliver, Ph.D., whom she credits with her decision to major in social work.
Belger reflected on her personal experience at Fairfield, and growing up as a woman.
“One aspect of being a woman that I have struggled with is that there are so many expectations that society has around what it is to be a woman and what it is to be a teenager growing up in the 21st century,” Belger shared.
She related this to college in particular, recalling the struggles she felt first-year with the expectations for young women to get dressed up and go out every weekend, when sometimes it felt more in her character to stay in with friends and watch a movie.
However, over the past three years, and with the support of the right friends and advisors, Belger learned to balance those expectations, separating the beneficial from the superficial.
“I’ve really grown into myself over the past three years,” she said.
And in terms of leadership, Belger believes that same time for growth is necessary. She has followed her passion for Servant Leadership, which in her words is “the spirit of living and breathing for and with others.”
That passion has led her to accomplish many great things.
Tushi Patel ‘22 is another woman who deserves recognition for the positive impact that she has made on our campus. She has served as a Cura Personalis Mentor, a Resident Assistant/Senior Resident Assistant and in various leadership positions within the South Asian Student Association, including president.
Patel’s personal experience has in some ways led her to take on these roles on campus.
“My experience at Fairfield University has been a really positive and impactful time for me,” Patel shared via email. “Having said that, being a woman of color at a PWI [predominantly white institution] has its challenges as it does within the global community, but I’ve been fortunate to have a community of supportive women who constantly inspire me and empower me.”
While every woman will have her own story, it seems a common trend that women support one another and build each other up, allowing for us to fill our world with even more strong, inspiring leaders.
Orlando’s advice for women studying at Fairfield now, as those coming in the future is as follows: “I would say find a mentor–someone you aspire to be–and surround yourself with good people who share your values. Attach yourself to causes that matters.”
That is exactly what Belger did when she helped bring the Concordium to Fairfield and continues to follow her passion of servant leadership. Patel followed this advice as she cultivated her relationships within SASA.
Patel wrote: “Growing up I would be the only South Asian female within my schools and class, therefore, coming to Fairfield and immediately being embraced within the South Asian community at Fairfield and the larger community, I felt called to be involved within SASA, as well as the other leadership roles to celebrate my own identity, culture, and bravely share it with others while cultivating bonds of friendship with others.”
All of these women share the common belief that all women are capable of amazing things.
Belger would encourage other women heading to college or in the process of growing to, “Be true to yourself and your values, and find people who let you thrive, find advisors that will unconditionally support you, and care about your wellbeing not just your academic success.”
Patel wants to remind women, “Don’t ignore your own potential. And know this there is no such thing as failure. In the moment, it will feel as if you have failed and it will look like it, but life is not perfect, being a leader does not necessarily mean you have everything figured out. It’s okay to make mistakes. Learn from them.”
Progress has been made, but it shouldn’t end here.
As Donoghue said, “Gender discrimination is still present. We have a duty to mentor and encourage women to be loud and present in spaces that have been traditionally dominated by men.”