August 2011 Archways

President’s Column

Dear Friends,

President Jane McAuliffe

President Jane McAuliffe

The College’s admissions materials describe a Bryn Mawr woman as possessing an intense intellectual commitment, a desire to make a meaningful difference in the world, and a purposeful vision of her life. In this letter I am eager to consider the last two of these qualities as expressed in recent alumnae achievements and in a new partnership Bryn Mawr has formed with the U.S. State Department and the five women’s colleges of the historic Seven Sisters to launch a global Women in Public Service (WIPS) Initiative.

In May, Maya Ajmera ’89 was named a 2011 Henry Crown Fellow by the Aspen Institute. Crown Fellows are “accomplished entrepreneurial thinkers” and “community-spirited leaders” looking to a larger role that they might play in society. Maya is founder and past president of the Global Fund for Children, which provides small grants to promising grassroots organizations around the world that serve vulnerable children and youth. In June, Deborah Ahenkorah ’10 received a 2011 Echoing Green Fellowship to launch the Golden Baobab Prize, designed to encourage development of African children’s literature. In developing plans for the Prize, she drew on a global network of Bryn Mawr alumnae and friends, including Ramatoulaye Diallo Shagaya ’98 (who gave advice on a business plan), Maya Ajmera (who served as a mentor during a summer internship at GFC), and classmates who continue to contribute as volunteers. Also in June, Carolyn Goldmark Goodman ’61 was elected mayor of Las Vegas, bringing the number of women mayors of the 100 largest U.S cities to nine. A resident of the city since the 1960s, Carolyn is founder of The Meadows School, Nevada’s only non-sectarian non-profit college-preparatory school, which currently enrolls 897 students.

These alumnae span generations and continents, but they share a commitment to enhancing the well-being of their communities and of young people in the United States and around the world. I found myself musing on the achievements of these three particular alumnae because of the light their stories shed on the WIPS Initiative. The focus of their work, their career trajectories, and the qualities that have contributed to their success has sharpened my sense of the distinctive power and promise of the WIPS Initiative.

In its initial work to shape the Initiative, the WIPS steering group asked, “What do we mean by public service?” Some championed an expansive definition that includes those who work in social services and NGOS, while other argued for a narrower definition of careers in elected politics, government, civic organizations or policymaking bodies like the UN. While WIPS aims to increase the percentage of women in elected office and leadership roles at all levels of government, that increase will depend on expanding the pool of potential candidates—for example, to women like Carolyn Goodman, who previously served the public good in K-12 education. The Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers points out that women come into elected office through different pathways from their male counterparts. WIPS will thus reach out to women from many backgrounds in our shared effort to advance the leadership role of women in civic and political governance.

The WIPS steering group also asked, “Why should we—five small women’s colleges—take on this project? What do we bring to the table that is distinctive and valuable?” While each of our institutions has a singular character and varied strengths, we all provide an education that hones our students’ ability to identify issues that have not be previously recognized or adequately addressed (the absence of an African children’s literature, the success of some local community organizations in tackling an issue affecting the well-being of poor children, the lack of a rigorous independent school option) and to lead work for a solution (a prize to stimulate interest, funding to expand capacity, a new school).

Deborah Ahenkorah’s story illustrates a particular strength that our colleges bring to the initiative: a powerful tradition of networking among students and alumnae. The steering group intends to establish a robust digital network for women at all stages of their public-service careers, one in which our own alumnae can participate. This digital community is intended as a source of mentoring, a resource for problem-solving, and a mechanism for both global connection and professional collaboration. Finally, and perhaps obviously, our five colleges have long reflected on questions of women and leadership. They have modeled the impact of women’s leadership in their campus communities and have understood the importance of providing students with opportunities for leadership. They have challenged assumptions about women as leaders and about effective leadership styles, and have called attention to the consequences of excluding women from leadership. Simply put, they assume women can and do lead.

The WIPS initiative provides a path for our colleges to extend our founding missions into an area of persistent inequality around the globe. By working in partnership with each other and the State Department, we multiply the impact we might have as individual institutions and we will extend that collaboration to other groups in the U.S. and around the world. I hope that our participation also inspires more Bryn Mawr students and alumnae to consider electoral politics or other government leadership roles as one of their paths to “public service.”

Jane McAuliffe