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Three Outstanding Women Recognized at Ella Grasso Awards

Published on March 26, 2015

Three Outstanding Women Recognized at Ella Grasso Awards

 Three women who work tirelessly to promote women’s rights and gender equality were recipients of the Ella T. Grasso Distinguished Service Awards on March 25 at Eastern Connecticut State University. The student award went to Erika Sanchez ’15, a women’s and gender studies major; the faculty/staff award went to Sociology Professor Cara Bergstrom-Lynch; and the community award went to Lee Ellen Terry, a retired attorney who currently serves as chair of the Women and Girls Fund Steering Committee.  “Eastern is an institution built on values,” opened President Elsa M.Núñez. “Among those are inclusion, empowerment and integrity. I believe that protecting women’s rights and recognizing those who are taking the lead in working for gender equality is fundamental to upholding the values of our institution.”

The ceremony’s keynote speaker was Attorney Michelle Cruz, who has worked with numerous crime victims over the course of her 20-year career, most notably as Connecticut’s second State Victim Advocate. A former high school dropout with little hope for the future, Cruz found herself to be a victim of domestic violence. Like so many women, she felt she was to blame for her abuse. Years later, after returning to school, Cruz kept learning of other women from all walks of life who had been abused. “Them too?” she kept wondering. Eventually she realized, “It doesn’t matter what your background is, you can be a victim—no one is immune.” Cruz continued, “Domestic violence is not about the victim, but the offender that chooses them.” She emphasized that “there is no shame in being a victim,” and that everyone is entitled to their dreams. “I’m proof; I’ve surpassed mine.”

Terry followed with remarks of her own experience. “I learned firsthand what it’s like to have good parents and a bad start,” she said. A young mother who went through bouts of homelessness in her 20s, Terry eventually found her way to college, ultimately leading to her becoming an attorney. While she has worked for a number of social causes, the bulk of her career was with the Department of Labor as an appeals referee, where she adjudicated thousands of cases, many of which involved unequal treatment of women in the workplace. “I hardly believe I deserve an award,” Terry said. “It’s been a great ride.”

Professor Bergstrom-Lynch, recognized for engaging her sociology students in practical experience through “service learning” projects, remarked on being an Ella T. Grasso awardee. A child during Grasso’s appointment as governor, Bergstrom-Lynch said, “Ella Grasso was a genuine force to bereckoned with, who helped pave the way for me.” But her work is not done, she insisted. “I find myself wondering when these gender inequalities will end.” Bergstrom-Lynch’s teaching and research interests address the intersections of gender and sexuality in families. “I hope my work will honor Ella Grasso’s legacy,” she said.

Concluding the event were remarks from Erika Sanchez, a first-generation student raised by her Mexican immigrant mother. “I would like to thank my mom, my champion,” she said. “Yo soy porque tú eres (I am because you are).” Sanchez recognized the sacrifices of her mother, and the opportunities she now has growing up in the United States. Among her community service efforts through Eastern’s Women’s Center, Sanchez’s capstone research analyzes the contributions of undocumented Mexican workers. Her legacy is to encourage others to embrace their culture and to honor women who have silently contributed to history. Speaking of her mother, Sanchez said, “I will continue to work so that her story, our story, is not just another.”

Written by Michael Rouleau