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Fall 2012/Winter 2013

Volume 41
Numbers 2-3

Challenges and Opportunities for Women's Leadership


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Global Perspective

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Megan Loney, Elaine Meyer-Lee, Mana Derakhshani  
Megan Loney, Mana Derakhshani, and Elaine Meyer-Lee

Educating Tomorrow’s Global Women Leaders
Megan Loney
, recent graduate; Elaine Meyer-Lee, director of the Center for Women's Intercultural Leadership; and Mana Derakhshani, associate director of the Center for Women’s Intercultural Leadership—all of Saint Mary’s College

On June 26, 2012, after weeks of preparation and eager anticipation, Saint Mary’s College welcomed twenty undergraduate women from Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Burma (Myanmar), and Mongolia for a five-week Study of the United States Institute (SUSI) for Student Leaders. Funded by the Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, these institutes aim to facilitate a better understanding of the United States abroad and to contribute to the development of future world leaders.

Part of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s Women in Public Service Initiative launched in December 2011, the SUSI at Saint Mary’s—a women’s college located in Notre Dame, Indiana—was one of four held at US colleges this summer that focused on women’s leadership. Among these programs, the Saint Mary's SUSI was distinctive in its inclusion of ten Saint Mary's students, each of whom had completed a selective application process to participate as a cultural mentor. In creating leadership opportunities for international visitors as well as for Saint Mary’s students, the initiative brought multiple layers of meaning to the purpose stated in its title: Educating Tomorrow’s Global Women Leaders.

Academic Exploration

With its well-established role in women’s intercultural leadership education, Saint Mary’s College and its Center for Women’s Intercultural Leadership (CWIL) provided a natural setting for the institute that CWIL designed, organized, and facilitated. The goal of this particular SUSI was twofold: to develop participants’ leadership skills, and to contextualize those skills within the framework of US women’s history and current challenges facing women globally.

To accomplish this goal, the institute combined an array of rigorous academic programming, leadership training, cultural exchange, and community service with a week of educational travel that culminated in a one-day conference at the US Department of State in Washington, DC. On campus, participants lived together in residence halls and engaged in structured daily academic programming, with an average day consisting of two two-to-three hour class sessions and a writing session. Participants also volunteered once a week at local community service organizations that support women, and spent weekends visiting host families or on educational trips to sites either related to American subcultures or connected to the history of social change in America.

In classes, participants learned about the multicultural and political history of women in the United States, with particular focus on the movement for women’s suffrage. They then engaged in broader exploration of women’s rights and political representation, women’s role in advancing democratic transitions, and women’s economic empowerment on a global level. During visits to Chicago, Seneca Falls, Boston, New York City, and Washington, DC, participants met with leading scholars and practitioners in the fields of education, medicine, politics, development, and international affairs. These experts—many of whom were women—advocated for women’s participation in their respective fields and encouraged participants to follow their aspirations, despite inevitable challenges.

Leadership Development

Emphasizing women’s leadership in public service, the institute included sessions on individual leadership development and incorporated guest lectures from women leaders, whose experiences illustrated that actions, not titles, define a leader. The curriculum’s approach to leadership development was based on CWIL’s Intercultural Leadership Model, which includes six proficiencies: recognize the leader within, articulate your ethical/spiritual center, engage with and value diversity, dialogue on power and privilege, create inclusive and equitable communities, and make your difference in the world. Although some of the young women had never considered volunteering in community organizations before, they came to appreciate that good leadership is inherently connected to serving others.

Each participant created an action plan to implement upon completion of the institute, articulating the next steps she would take to contribute to social change. Varying in mission, scope, execution, and timeline, these projects combined participants’ passions with the skills and lessons they gained over the course of the institute. One participant from Tunisia designed a series of workshops to address women’s rights, bring awareness to social injustices women face, and encourage women to advocate for themselves. Her ultimate vision is for the new constitution of Tunisia to establish social justice and equal opportunities for men and women. Other action plans addressed education, health, women’s political representation, and social justice. Institute staff members are now following up to mentor participants as they implement their plans.

Cultural Exchange

Along with intense academic experiences, participants engaged in rich cultural exchange. To facilitate this from the start, each Saint Mary’s student served as a cultural mentor to two international participants from different countries. Rooming together on the same floor, dining together, and participating in extracurricular cultural activities, the women formed bonds with one another despite the complex challenges and barriers of cross-cultural interaction. The women began their journey toward true intercultural solidarity by cheering each other on while climbing a rock wall on the institute’s first full day. A later turning point came while sharing tears and stories of personal tragedy during a discussion of the film Pray the Devil Back to Hell, which depicts women’s interreligious leadership in ending the Liberian Civil War. 

After five weeks of living, learning, laughing, traveling, and crying together, everyone in the institute had difficulty saying goodbye. The knowledge that international participants were returning to challenging environments augmented the feeling of finality at the institute’s end. Despite the ideals participants discussed in class, the realities of poor healthcare, political instability, lack of free media, and institutionalized gender and economic inequality remain across the world. The institute occurred during a pivotal time for all thirty international participants’ countries, and it helped equip participants with the education and skills to make a difference in their own countries and globally. As Sonalini Sapra, professor of political science at Saint Mary’s College and institute faculty member, stated, “Institutes like these can be helpful in having young women share strategies of resistance across different social, political, and cultural contexts. For instance, gender-based violence was an issue that was brought up on multiple occasions by each group (including the American delegation). In sharing their experiences, each group learned different strategies for how best to deal with it in their own local context.”

SUSI participants and faculty remain in contact via a private Facebook group, to which they regularly post personal messages and information about current events and issues related to women globally. Within hours of the September 2012 attack on the Libyan embassy, one Libyan participant posted a personal apology, expressing disgust and committing to “do everything in our power to prove that this is not who the Libyan people truly are.” Several participants from North African countries then offered information about peace protests even before these were covered by mainstream media. As they share information and inspiration, the participants have already become a global network of emerging women leaders.

Only the Beginning

Reflecting on the institute, Professor Sapra observed, “Despite the challenges, institutes like these help young women be in solidarity with each other—to learn from each other, and renew their commitment, spirits, and energies for the fight for global women’s rights.” Authentic engagement across different ideas, opinions, and worldviews is not easy, but it broadens perspectives and creates global citizens concerned with critical issues that span national boundaries. These critical issues can seem less overwhelming when viewed as requiring joint effort—particularly for the women whose role in addressing them is so crucial. The end of the institute was only the beginning for participants’ role as leaders in the advancement of women’s rights globally.

SUSI 2012

Study of the United States Institute (SUSI) Participants, Saint Mary’s College

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