In honor of the 50 year anniversary of women joining Fairfield University’s undergraduate community, the Fairfield University Student Association has put on a number of events celebrating this momentous occasion. They hosted both “A Conversation with Former Female FUSA Leaders” on Wednesday Oct. 21 and “50 Years of Women at Fairfield With Guest Speaker Shiza Shahid” on Saturday Oct. 24. 

The conversation with past presidents was moderated by the current FUSA President, Vincent Gadioma ‘22. The only six women to ever serve as FUSA President were vice president of student life Karen Donoghue ‘03, Jessica DiBuono ‘06, Zoë Ferranti ‘17, Cara Gibbons ‘18, Danielle Rice ‘19 and Claire Monahan ‘20.  

During the conversation, the leaders shared insights based on their time in office, as well as an abundance of high praise for one another for starting a wave of female presidents, with the last four presidents being women. 

“I felt more confident and comfortable in my ability to be president because they had laid some serious groundwork for me already,” said Rice. 

She added that seeing Monahan win the 2019 election was especially important considering the history that Donoghue had begun in 2003.  

This trend is particularly extraordinary given that prior to Ferranti’s presidency, only two women previously occupied the position.   

“I didn’t understand how ceiling-shattering Donoghue’s presidency was when I was a freshman,” remarked DiBuono.  

DiBuono, now an English teacher at Weston High School, spoke on how her time as president allowed her to enter life after Fairfield with the utmost confidence.  

“I just took for granted that everyone wanted to hear my opinion because I was so used to being in meetings and people wanting to hear my opinion,” explained DiBuono. “It helps me so much as an English teacher, as I have had such battles after bringing more diversity and female authors in our curriculum.”

Gibbons reiterated this sentiment about her job as a nurse.

“I am advocating for my patients constantly, as I was for the student body,” she said.  

Despite their success in reaching this leadership position, the women had to endure gender biases to get there. As Donoghue mentioned, these biases are built into society’s very core.  

“‘She’s so sensitive.’ ‘She’s not strong enough to do that.’ These stereotypes are just something that all leaders face,” said Donoghue. “How often did we hear that when Hillary Clinton ran [for president]? FUSA is just a microcosm of the political structures we have in place.”

Ferranti, who ran against three male candidates during the last United States election year, truly felt this burden. Running against three male candidates, she had to address this topic and emphasize that she was not inferior to her male counterparts and that she offered new perspectives as a woman. 

“Having women in positions of power is really important for life in general. For younger women to say, ‘Oh she’s doing that, I want to do that one day too,’ that’s really important,” said Ferranti.     

Among other words of wisdom, the women addressed all female attendees who might be considering running for a leadership position.  

“Why not you? Why can’t you do that job?” asked Monahan. “Imagine yourself in that position. You would do good things in that job! You are someone who is capable of doing it, and you should run.”

“It’s very hard to not compare yourself to other people,” said Rice. “Trust yourself, trust your own ability.” 

“Women can do anything, but the biggest thing is that we have to support one another,” said Gibbons. “If you are currently in a leadership position, be a mentor. Support somebody.”

Donoghue added to this thought by saying how women are not only still treated unequally, but sometimes they are the worst critics of other women. She stressed about how women not only need to uplift each other, but break through and represent themselves in male-dominanted spaces as well.

“As I look at the screen today, I still feel like there should be more females here,” declared Donoghue.

The group spent scattered moments throughout the event reminiscing on fond memories, unforgettable experiences and invaluable lessons from their times as president. Nonetheless, it was the messages of empowerment that rang the loudest. 

“Be your best advocate and an advocate for other women, as well,” said DiBuono. “Why not you? You bring so much to the table, you have ideas! Take your seat at the table and claim it.”   

“I felt so inspired being on the panel with the other five female FUSA presidents,” said Monahan. “The event reminded me of all the progress Fairfield has made to be more inclusive, but it also highlighted all the ways we can continue to improve.”

In an email after the event, Donoghue stated that, “the women on the panel are strong, brave and role models to many. I consider myself blessed to be part of a group with such talented women. I hope more women join us in future years to make the past female FUSA president group stronger. In one hour, I found comfort, hope and inspiration from my friends.”

The conversation with Shiza Shahid was under a different light, focusing on what we can do for women outside of our campus. Shahid is the co-founder and former chief executive officer of the Malala Fund and is known for being a mentor of the Nobel Peace Prize winner and women’s education advocate, Malala Yousafzai. 

Moderated by politics professor, Jocelyn Boryczka Ph.D., the conversation began with a look at the battle that took place to admit women to the University. At the time, the student association held forums, with men discussing whether or not to allow women. They voted against the proposal. It wasn’t until the Board of Trustees passed a resolution that Fairfield was finally made co-educational for the fall of 1970. 

Shahid knows this battle well. Growing up in Pakistan, she faced many of the same social challenges seen in the United States, along with some struggles that aren’t seen here. Her mother was not able to attend higher education, nor join the workforce. Inspired by her mom and the instability of her country, Shahid shared that she started “showing up at the doors of nonprofits and asking them to let me volunteer.”

She said she couldn’t do much to help by just writing case studies, but it was her desire to truly make a difference that led her to find this work and connect to people. She discovered this power women had, especially in her early work with women’s financial empowerment and education, even describing that this power “struck” her. 

Shahid received a scholarship to attend Stanford University, but in 2009 she went back to Pakistan after the Taliban banned the education of women entirely. She mentions that although this was something that terrified her, none of her friends or classmates understood it or felt the impact of this decision. 

“One of the challenges is that most people didn’t know this was happening. This was in a far-away place, in a far-away country that Americans hadn’t really heard of,” Shahid said. 

The women that were directly affected by this ban had always been isolated. This led Shahid to travel and create a “Secret Summer Camp,” where they could be given resources that she had growing up that they could no longer access. 

Years passed before her relationship to the famous activist Malala Yousafzai came into play, arguably the part of Shahid’s story that is most well known to us. She met the young girl before, became her mentor, invited her over to her house and was a close confidante to her entire family for many years before the murder attempt on Yousafzai in 2012. 

Shahid quickly rushed to her side, but she mentioned she was not the only one who was closely following this story, as the idea that a young woman could be shot for trying to obtain an education in the 21st century sent shockwaves across the globe. 

When support started flooding in from people who wanted to know how to help Yousafzai, Shahid asked her what they should do next. Yousafzai was thankful for the support, but thought it would be best directed elsewhere. 

‘“I’m really okay,’ she said, ‘But you should tell them to help the other girls,’’ is what Yousafzai said, according to Shahid’s memory.  

Shahid then knew that this tragic event could be used for more than just a day in the news cycle, that the attempt to silence Yousafzai could be used to give a voice to countless others. 

This kind of change might seem hard to come by for a typical Fairfield student. However, when Shahid was asked during the question and answer session what students could do right now and how they could start, she had a few ideas. 

“Well certainly vote,” she said, and laughed. “Get your family to vote. Get your loved ones and friends to vote.”

She also emphasized the idea of being more thoughtful of purchases we’re making, and chose to support small businesses run by women and people of color. 

Lastly, she mentioned that curiosity is always important, especially for college students with a multitude of opportunities to expand and diversify their knowledge. 

What you learn most from both the FUSA President panel and Shahid is about the Jesuit value of being women and men for, and with, others. Though you might be lucky enough to attend Fairfield University and graduate with a degree, ready to take on the world, there’s always a next step. You can carry on and help the FUSA presidents who come after you find success in this challenging role, or be like Shahid and help younger girls find the same opportunities she was given as a child. All in all, it seems to matter more what you do for others after graduation than what you achieve while you are here.

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