College celebrates 100 years of coeducation, invites alumni, faculty, students to participate in panel talks for Women’s Weekend

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The weekend celebrated the cultural and historical impact of coeducation on the College.

The College of William and Mary hosted Women’s Weekend Sept. 22-24 in celebration of its 100th year of co-education with performances, panels and keynote lunches with female graduates from the College. 

Snapshots: Portraits of a World in Transition, led by journalist Anna Smith, included interviews Smith had done over the years, which she performed in the Sadler Center’s Commonwealth Auditorium. In “A Heavy Sense of Resignation,” Smith read the remarks of a woman named Kiersta Kurtz-Burke, who worked as a physician at the now-defunct, publicly funded Charity Hospital in New Orleans, Louisiana. Five days after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, members and staff of the hospital had yet to be evacuated. Kurtz-Burke, who tried to remain optimistic, said she didn’t realize what her patients already had — that they would be the last ones evacuated.

“It wasn’t a shock to anybody,” Kurtz-Burke said in her interview with Smith. “But the fact that it wasn’t a shock to people was so shocking to me. You just see the desperation of being poor in this country, and in some ways, the distress — I mean, deep down, that this is not the first time that this has happened to people. You know, I’m privileged — this is the first time that I have ever been totally abandoned by my government. But this wasn’t the first time for my patients or the nurses or the other people that worked at Charity Hospital.”

In Powering Possibilities in the Nonprofit Sector, moderated by Lynn Miller ’72 M.Ed ’73, three College alumnae discussed their work in the community along with their successes and challenges in the different spheres of their lives as women.

Director of Student Leadership Development at Vanderbilt University Krystal Clark ’05 said that during her volunteer work, she discovered that organizations struggled to make ethical decisions and would not recognize the impact on other volunteers who took on the brunt of those decisions. When she became the president of the Junior League of Nashville, Clark said she was motivated to change the approach to tough personnel decisions.

“As women, sometimes we shy away from having super hard, accountable conversations, especially in volunteer organizations,” Clark said. “So we thought a lot about, ‘How do we equip women with that skill set in these positions? How do you have that tough conversation? How do you hold people accountable? How do you set clear expectations?’ And I don’t think we had done that very well before.”

“As women, sometimes we shy away from having super hard, accountable conversations, especially in volunteer organizations,” Clark said. “So we thought a lot about, ‘How do we equip women with that skill set in these positions? How do you have that tough conversation? How do you hold people accountable? How do you set clear expectations?’ And I don’t think we had done that very well before.”

As the first African-American president of the Junior League, Clark said she tries to encourage other women of color to ascend professionally and grow in their roles as she grows in hers.

“For me, serving in the way that I do in my community has allowed me to open doors for and opportunities for other women who look like me, who thought those spaces did not belong to them,” Clark said. “I am very clear that my presence is an invitation. My presence is presented as an opportunity. I am very public about the service that I do because I want other young black women to say, ‘Oh, I can join that group. I can have that opportunity. I can learn those things because she’s there.’”

Vice President of Strategic Initiatives and Operation Strategy of Bright Horizons Michelle Kang ’96 said that as a member of boards, she has found that when other women participate, they help move multiple facets of an issue or project forward at once.

“I think that we as women bring so much richness to the table,” Kang said. “Historically, and I think even nowadays, it’s still hard sometimes in a conversation to feel confident bringing that perspective.”

Cleveland Metropolitan School District Leadership Coach and Strategist Marcy Shankman ’90 said that in her experience, women have a relational style of leadership which facilitates cooperation.

“I think that boards that are more diverse and inclusive of women have a stronger fabric of relationships because there’s a tendency of women to lead through relationships,” Shankman said. “That’s a power of having women involved in any organizational or collective effort.”

One of the biggest challenges Shankman said she faced in her nonprofit work was an identity crisis. While she wanted to help, she felt she lacked the resources do to so, which would put her family at risk.

“[It was] more of an internal struggle around wanting to be all things to all people and feeling like I was jeopardizing the health and wellbeing of my family because I was wanting to serve the community,” Shankman said. “So it was a very personal challenge of ‘When can I move into that community space in an authentic and genuine way and give at the level that I wanted to give of my time and my talent?’”

Clark stressed the importance of role models whom young individuals can identify with and said that she was grateful for her time at the College, which helped her solidify her desire to help others.

“I just feel this call,” Clark said. “I think William helped support that, is that you give back. You help other people along the way. Otherwise, for me, I wouldn’t truly be living the call that’s on my life as a person. It was never a question for me whether or not I was going to get involved. I have a mission statement that I live by, and mine is to equip other people to thrive. Everything that I do, I want to help other people gain the skills to be able to live their best life because that’s what I think people did for me.”

When Director of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum Ellen Stofan ‘83 D.Sc. ‘16 took the stage for Engaging the Next Generation of Explorers, she, like Clark, underscored the need for role models — especially female role models — in the field of STEM. Some of Stofan’s early childhood experiences, like geology field trips with her mother, who was pursuing a master’s in education, piqued her interest in science and math-related careers.

“At that point, no one ever told me, ‘You can’t,’” Stofan said. “No one ever told me, ‘People that look like you don’t do this.’ And if they had, I’m not sure if would’ve continued. That’s why I’m so passionate about how do we really encourage kids to move forward when the fact is that they do encounter so much discouragement.”

According to Stofan, women make up 47 percent of the United States workforce but only 24 percent of the workforce in STEM-related jobs.

“When I went to work at the Air and Space Museum that I was telling you about as a young intern, … I didn’t see anybody who looked like me,” Stofan said. “And that became typical of really pretty much the rest of my career — of looking around the room, of looking for someone who looked like me, looking for role models who looked like me and not finding them.”

Men like the Wright brothers and John Glenn all played an important role in aviation history, according to Stofan. But Stofan said that history often leaves out women, like Katherine Wright, who assisted her brothers, and Bessie Coleman, who was the first African-American woman to hold a pilot’s license after she moved to France to get one. Both women, along with many others, were critical to developments in aviation.

“For much of the 20th century, the story of flight was told through the prism of the great man theory — a 19th-century notion that history turns on the actions of a few men [with] intelligence, capability and charisma,” Stofan said.

“For much of the 20th century, the story of flight was told through the prism of the great man theory — a 19th-century notion that history turns on the actions of a few men [with] intelligence, capability and charisma,” Stofan said.

Stofan said that it wasn’t until 1983 when Sally Ride became the first American woman to go into space — 23 years after the space program started in 1960. Nine years after Ride and 32 years after the space program’s beginning, Mae Jemison became the first African-American woman to enter space. As the first female director of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, Stofan said that these stories about the pioneering accomplishments of women in aviation and in space are there — we just need to tell them.

“We want to tell stories of women who defy,” Stofan said. “Women who were told there wasn’t a place for them in aviation and space and who stared right back and said, ‘Yes, there is.’”