by Shelly N. Laurenzo
I have been fortunate enough, during the past semester, to participate in a women’s leadership program on my campus called Women of Change (WoC). Three senior members in student affairs and academics brainstormed and developed this program over several years before finally receiving a grant for this inaugural cohort. Just to give you an overview of WoC, there are eight women in the program from a variety of offices in student affairs (residence life, health center, and judicial affairs to name a few) in entry and mid-level positions. We began in December with our kick-off retreat and have met every other week for three hours during the spring semester.
For the kick-off retreat we completed an assessment called the Birkman (https://www.birkman.com/), which analyzes passions, behaviors, interests and motivations. This in-depth assessment allowed us to learn more about each other and ourselves. As an academic and career advisor, I’ve completed and administered a variety of assessments but have never come across one as in-depth as the Birkman. It not only outlined some of my common behaviors but also got to their roots. I completed the assessment about a week before the retreat and had an hour-long debrief with one of the Birkman consultants the day before. I never felt more exposed than discussing my Birkman results with the consultant and the WoC group. The consultant was able to highlight aspects of myself I had never been able to verbalize or really even understand before. I felt very raw at that time but it was comforting to know all of the women in my group were feeling the same way. We were all able to come together in this safe space fully exposed and accept each other with no hesitation.
As part of the program we are also paired off with mentors. While members of the cohort are all in student affairs, mentors came from across campus including academics, athletics and the senior leadership team. Before our first meeting in January, we were asked to submit names of supervisors and colleagues to complete a 360 evaluation to be shared with our mentors. I was a little apprehensive about a stranger reading an evaluation about me before meeting me, but having survived the retreat, I felt optimistic. The mentor who was assigned to me is an associate vice provost in the academic side of the house. She is obviously a very powerful woman on campus and at first I felt a little intimidated by her (okay, and to be honest, I still do), but have found her to be a great coach. When reviewing my 360 evaluations, we focused on my areas of growth. My evaluators mostly highlighted that I should speak out more and feel confident in sharing my thoughts and insights. She pushes me to go outside of my comfort zone and really think about my seat at the table. And, as a new mom just rounding out the first year of parenthood, she was also able to provide support in understanding my new role as a working mother.
Each month in the spring semester the program facilitators highlighted a different aspect of leadership such as creativity, change, teams and collaboration. A variety of campus members have also come in to talk to us, including the new dean for the college of business, the first lady of the university and the vice president for student affairs. We enact the cone of silence at every meeting, which truly encourages every one at the table to feel comfortable and safe sharing their opinions, struggles and praise. Our group read Lean In and we had a lively discussion about the book facilitated by the dean for the college of business. While we do have readings and presentations, I would say the best part of the meetings are when we have open discussion. I have really found a community with these women and am excited to keep the conversation going and see where we all go next.
Fortunately the university was pleased with this initial run of the program and has decided to continue funding WoC. I am writing this blog post partially to share my experiences in WoC, but also to advocate for the good work it has done on my campus; hopefully programs like these will continue to run and begin to pop up on other campuses. I believe it is important to create opportunities for women in student affairs to engage and reflect on leadership. Thankfully my own campus has acknowledged the good work done in WoC and sees it as an investment opportunity for the future leadership of this institution.
Shelly N. Laurenzo is an academic and career advisor at James Madison University. Laurenzo earned her MEd in higher education administration from the College of William and Mary and her bachelor’s degree in philosophy from James Madison University. Connect with her on Twitter @ShellyLaurenzo.