On Wednesday, March 28, the Department of Humanities hosted their annual Women's History Month Luncheon and Panel Discussion, featuring six female Illinois Tech student speakers. Department of Humanities Chair Margaret Power started off the event by explaining that she’d like each student to describe their experience at Illinois Tech and how it has been shaped by being a woman. “Hopefully we will go out of the room feeling empowered as women,” Power said.
Emma Kaufman started out the discussion, introducing herself as a second year physics student and a lesbian. She explained that the main reason she decided to attend Illinois Tech was the school’s diversity; she didn’t want to be the only woman or LGBTQ+ individual in her classes. Kaufman went on to explain, however, that there was a big difference between diversity and inclusion, and while Illinois Tech has a very diverse campus, it was lacking on the inclusion front. According to the Students Speak survey, Kaufman cited, only about 60% of Illinois Tech students indicated that they felt welcomed on campus; Kaufman admitted that she herself didn’t feel this way. She described a time where she was told to “sit there and look pretty” during a group project, and how this crushed her spirit; she described how many of her physics professors were old white men who made their fair share of racist or otherwise insensitive comments in class. When Kaufman started attending Prism meetings, a gender and sexuality alliance organization on campus, she finally felt a sense of true welcoming on campus. “Two years ago I never would have been able to sit up here and say I’m a lesbian, but now it’s pretty easy,” she explained. “Seeing other queer people be confident in their identities has made me more confident.” As the current president of Prism, Kaufman is working hard to make sure all students feel welcomed on campus, and she encouraged audience members to do all they could to make campus inclusive, whether this means advocating for more gender-inclusive restrooms, fighting to make campus more accessible, or making sure transgender women feel welcomed into women’s spaces, for example.
Third year political science student Trixie Weiner spoke next. Weiner said that she currently had the privilege to serve as the vice president of student life for Illinois Tech’s Student Government Association (SGA), whose executive board consisting of 86% women. While this is an amazing thing to be a part of, Weiner explained, it saddened her that an executive board with such a high percentage of women has to be remarkable. An executive board of 86% men would be statistically insignificant, she said. Further, it saddened her that so many women on campus have their own stories of sexual harassment or assault. Weiner explained that she saw a stark difference in even something as simple as helping friends get ready for dates and nights out; when helping men get ready, their thoughts are about how they hope their date is cute. When helping women get ready, they ask if they can share their location with her because they’re scared something bad will happen. This cannot be allowed to continue, Weiner stressed.
Latocha Terrelonge then introduced herself as a senior studying engineering management from Jamaica. Terrelonge explained that she has been very lucky and that those around her have always encouraged her to pursue STEM, and she wanted to share her journey there. In high school when she was unsure what to study, someone suggested that she consider engineering, and she decided to do so. Terrelonge explained that she hadn’t thought of it as a male-dominated field, because in the Jamaican context, women made up half of all managers in the country, and she was grateful for that. “There were never any perceived barriers that as a woman I couldn’t go into STEM, or I couldn’t be an engineer, or I couldn’t do what I wanted to do,” she explained. While she initially started out as a biomedical engineering student at Illinois Tech, she decided that the field wasn’t for her. However, influenced by the leadership positions she was able to get involved in at Illinois Tech in organizations like the Society of Black Engineers and Caribbean Visionaries, she realized that management was something she enjoyed. “I’ve only been met with encouragement, and I think that’s remarkable, I think that’s something to be celebrated,” Terrelonge said.
Nour Issa, a third year biology major, introduced herself next. Something she had come to learn at Illinois Tech, Issa explained, was that everyone had a story. A part of her story, she described, was that in October of 2017, she decided to take off her hijab. She didn’t have simply one reason for doing so, she explained, and the situation was complicated, but one reason was that she began to feel like there had been an “entanglement between religion and culture in my household.” She explained that two words in her household were used interchangeably, one meaning culturally inappropriate and one meaning religiously forbidden, but these mean two very different things. Growing up, she described how her brothers were allowed to do things and go places that she wasn’t allowed to do. She loved her religion, and while she wasn’t a religious scholar, she knew that God teaches that women should be treated equally, just as men. This way of treating women differently is a big problem in many Middle Eastern households, she explained. “I decided that I wasn’t going to get culture confused with religion,” Issa explained. The only reason she put on the headscarf, in the beginning, Issa said, was that it was culturally inappropriate; it had nothing to do with religion. “I promised myself that until I believe in what is supposed to be believed, I wasn’t going to wear my headscarf, because religion does not equal culture.”
Juliana Cardona Narvaez, a first year architecture student from Colombia, spoke next. She described a childhood in which she watched her male cousins play with toy cars and video games while she could not ask for these things as a woman. Frustrated that she was being treated differently, Narvaez started dressing more like a boy as a way to be able to do and say as she wanted. She realized, however, that this was wrong: she should be able to be unapologetically woman-like and also do what she wanted. Narvaez’s mother raised three children on her own, and this strong figure has shaped her into the woman she is today, she explained. While they do not always agree on everything and while they may fight, Narvaez said, at the end of the day her mother made her the woman she is. Narvaez now has the courage to stand up and believe that she can do things her way, to believe that she is somebody. Her experience at Illinois Tech has been a diverse one, not male-oriented, she explained, and she was happy to say that about half of professors are women.
Mehak Hafeez, a master’s student studying psychology, spoke next. Hafeez started by saying that she had encountered a lot of difficulty putting her story into words, and for that reason, she had decided to write a poem instead of a traditional speech. For this reason, it is difficult to capture Hafeez’s words on paper without a full transcript of her poem. However, some main ideas of her poem included society’s attempts to conform her to society’s norms, others’ responses to her religion and specifically her headscarf, and how her immigration status affected the college application process. “What does my [immigration] status have to do with what’s in my brain? Absolutely nothing,” Hafeez read. She also described being “saved by a woman” at age 18, a woman who cared to ask her what she wanted to do with her life and told her she could go further if she wanted to.
After each of the student presenters had spoken, Power remarked briefly, “One good thing about having a panel of women is you don’t go over your time limit.” With a good amount of time left, the audience was then free to ask questions of the panel. One audience member spoke up, saying that 25 years ago if someone came to campus that was not blonde and blue-eyed, it was considered diverse. The audience member said that diversity can mean many different things, and while Illinois Tech often says it is diverse, there are not many African Americans on campus, especially considering the staff and faculty.
The panelists discussed diversity briefly, many of them agreeing that while Illinois Tech was diverse, it was not diverse enough. Terrelonge mentioned that while Illinois Tech was located in the South Side of Chicago, there were hardly any students attending the university from the South Side. Terrelonge thought there should be more outreach to the immediate community. Issa explained that she thought it would be nice to see more Palestinian students on campus like her, because while there was a good presence of different cultures on campus, it isn’t even close to an equal spread. Weiner mentioned that there was a big difference between statistic diversity and actual community diversity, and that people tend to congregate with people who are similar to them instead of really integrating, which is an issue the campus should work on.
Another audience member asked panelists to share how they celebrate their womanhood. Narvaez said that women shouldn’t hold back, shouldn’t be worried about sounding “bossy” or talking too much, and speak their mind. The rest of the panel agreed with this; Kaufman explained that it was important to be “unapologetically myself,” and to “take up space as I am.” Issa explained that perhaps it was not a celebration of her womanhood, but she was certainly working to amplify the voice of women, always working towards the next step.
One question came from a second year civil engineering student in the audience, who explained that she was one of the only Latinx students in her classes, yet she can see that her Latinx classmates are falling behind. She asked panelists to share advice about how to stay motivated when it feels like everything is going against you. Hafeez explained that seeing her advisor has helped her a great deal, specifically in becoming more aware of the resources available to her, such as the Academic Resource Center (ARC) and Career Services. She also recommended joining a student organization of those on a similar career path. Kaufman said, “spite is a great motivator, use that to your advantage.” Issa explained that she was one of only two biology majors in her year, and that the two of them worked on everything together and kept each other in check. She encouraged the audience member to find other students to work together and keep each other motivated.
The final audience question asked panelists what advice they would give Illinois Tech President Alan Cramb. Terrelonge said that she would like to see a bigger, more diverse student population. Issa explained that she was frustrated that after continually paying a lab fee, she saw no improvement in the quality of lab equipment, something that affected her learning a great deal. Weiner thought that Illinois Tech could greatly benefit from a greater access to academic papers. She explained that she has resorted to writing research papers based entirely on abstracts from academic papers because the full paper was not available to her. Kaufman thought that the campus should be more transparently supportive of all types of diversity, and Hafeez said there should be increased support for undocumented students on campus.
Writer’s note: While one TechNews writer cannot speak for the entirety of the audience, I certainly felt an overwhelming sense of community and friendliness within the group gathered for the panel, and this feeling was not limited to the women present. All of those who attended seemed excited to hear about and discuss the struggles and successes women have had and are having on campus as well as off. I certainly left the panel feeling more empowered as a woman, as Power had hoped, and I’m hopeful others did as well.