Students at Northern Virginia Community College’s Alexandria campus are learning to empower and encourage women to take leadership roles on and off campus through a program co-hosted by the American Association of University Women (AAUW).
The “Elect Her” program is in its fourth year. It began when the school’s Jean Braden Center for Women was approached by AAUW, which offered to co-host annual sessions with NOVA-Alexandria as part of a much larger program offered across the country.
Patricia Gordon, co-founder and program adviser of NOVA-Alexandria’s “Elect Her,” said the program is typically offered on four-year campuses, making NOVA one of the first community colleges to put the program into action.
AAUW assisted NOVA-Alexandria with session trainings, grant approvals and all the other necessities required to operate the program.
AUW “has an extensive support system [for the staff] to help bring everybody along,” said Carolyn Lorente, a professor of psychology.
Student liaisons, faculty volunteers and board members are included in the planning for the program, said Lorente.
“Elect Her” is not just about getting involved in politics, but it also aims to encourage women to take on leadership roles at the community college level, said Gordon.
“Our students often will get involved in anything that involves leadership, learning more about themselves, developing more self-confidence and developing more experience,” Gordon said. “That’s what’s drawing them” to the program.
Francescea Roaelison, a NOVA psychology major, said the program offered her confidence and inspiration.
“The trainings [for me] were more focused on having a voice,” she said, “and telling your story and inspiring more people, especially women, to be a part of something bigger than themselves.”
Raoelison said she attended her first “Elect Her” session two years ago and since then has been involved in several other conferences linked to AAUW and other national organizations – which has encouraged her to take more action in her community.
“I submitted a proposal to the Clinton Global Initiative University, which is everything about helping a country to fight poverty and climate change, but for me, it was more about fighting poverty,” Raoelison said. “I was able to put everything that I’ve learned into [the proposal].”
Her proposal was chosen by the university out of 1,000 other student proposals submitted.
“I’m just so grateful to be chosen,” she said.
The “Elect Her” program is offered to all NOVA students who wish to attend, but it has a 50-seat registration limit, said Gordon.
Bethlehem Getaneh, an “Elect Her” student liaison and biology major, said was glad to see a program dedicated to women in a place where she says they are normally seen as inferior.
“I met so many inspiring women, and I want to be just like them one day and run for office,” Getaneh said. “I got into leadership at the Alexandria campus and said, ‘You know what? I’m just going to keep going no matter how many mistakes I make.’”
Getaneh said one of the reasons she returns to the program every year is that the program covers a range of topics and teaches what actions women can take to fulfill their goals.
To do that, Lorente said, students “pick a topic that they care about and identify people that can help.”
Lorente said program leaders ask: “What are the three actions items that you want to do? Three people that might help you, and then you learn how to do an elevator speech,” a short statement that helps the women identify their most important points or topics and ends with asking for someone’s support.
One major issue that NOVA as a whole faces is the separation of campuses. Getaneh said she believes the program would be stronger if all the campuses united in the goal to uplift women into positions of authority.
“We are the only [NOVA] campus that has a center for women, gender and social equity,” Lorente said. “And after this event, we had so many people come up to us and say, ‘We want one at our campus, too.’”
The center, all operated by volunteers, does more than just host the annual “Elect Her” training sessions. They also encourage women to be a part of its mentoring program, “Women Helping Women,” which has been functioning for the last 10 years.
Getaneh said programs like these allow students to connect with other women and push each other ahead, especially among the Alexandria campus’s international students.
Lorente said she sees a highly diverse mixture of women every session, including a range of ethnic and religious backgrounds and ages.
During this year’s session, a male student also attended.
“We had a male-identifying person come, which is awesome,” Lorente said. “He [said], ‘I was afraid to come because I didn’t know how you guys would accept me, but I want to know how to support my sisters.’”
Several men on campus are encouraging women to get more involved in leadership roles on campus, Getaneh said, and many of them are running for campus office and organization positions.
“Everyone that signs up for [“Elect Her”] has to fill out an application form,” Gordon said. “And we ask them certain questions about why they’re interested, what their expectations are, whether they’re planning to run for student government.”
Student elections are each spring, Gordon said, and her office compares who ran, who won and if any of the candidates attended the training session.
“Every single year,” Gordon said, “the ones that did run, that did attend the program, won the election.”
One of the major obstacles women face when wanting to run for office is asking for support, money and votes, said Gordon.
“It’s not comfortable,” she said. “This program is to talk about that, and help them understand the whole process. We’re planting seeds to inspire students.”
Women participating in the program said there is lots of support among themselves to strive for positions of leadership despite some of the stereotypes about them.
“They’re teaching us how to fish,” Getaneh said. “They’re teaching us to do things on our own. It’s really awesome…we have the skills inside of us.”
Lorente said the program leaders hope to continue reaching women through avenues such as social media and encourage women to use those tools to reach others.
“We’re not just a room. We’re a community,” Lorente said. “We’re better together…and we can overcome barriers.”
Sierra Darville can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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