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Eastern’s Women’s and Gender Studies Major Develops Change Agents

Published on January 20, 2016

Eastern’s Women’s and Gender Studies Major Develops Change Agents

n 1920, the U.S. Congress ratified the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote. Today, women are mayors of cities, governors of states, CEOs at major corporations and leaders of universities. They run for president and vice president of the United States, vote in more presidential elections than men and graduate from college in higher numbers than men, including at Eastern Connecticut State University.
Even with President Barack Obama signing into law the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Play Act in 2009, white women still earn only 77 cents for every dollar that men earn in the workplace. This wage gap increases for women of color in Connecticut, with African-American women earning 64 cents for every dollar and Latinas earning 52 cents.

To help students better understand the historical factors that impact the status of gender in the United States, and the means by which women and other social groups are working to achieve equality, Eastern began offering a women’s and gender studies (WGS) major in 2012. Eastern is the only public university in Connecticut offering the degree, and two of its first three graduates were men!

Isaiah Roby graduated in May 2013 with a double major in WGS and psychology. Through experiences like his internship with Eastern’s Women’s Center, to his capstone project where he investigated the resources available to LBGT students across various college campuses, Roby discovered his calling as an activist.

Since graduating, Roby has continued his advocacy work in both the professional and community service worlds. He currently works as a legal assistant at the Shawnee County District Attorney’s Office in Kansas. “I am hands-on helping to achieve justice for victims and the families of victims,” he said. “It is a side that I never expected to be on. I was always on the front end of helping the person decide if they were going to report; now I’m on the side of making sure their voice is heard.”

Before moving to Kansas, Roby was active in the communities of the San Francisco Bay Area, California. “I was running a support group for transmasculine people; now I am working on getting a group started in Topeka for the Shawnee area,” he said. “I am also working on mentoring younger transmasculine people through an online Big Brother/Little Brother program. My partner and I are teaming up to speak at the only youth group for trans people in the area.

“Women’s and gender studies is such a part of me that I wouldn’t be who I am today without it,” said Roby. “It’s everywhere. I don’t go a day without thinking about it and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Sean Richmond graduated in December 2013. His work included a presentation on lesbian literature and a project on feminist memoirs. Fittingly, it was a woman, Richmond’s wife Kathleen, who got him involved with WGS. Richmond had already earned one degree at Eastern in history, with a minor in writing poetry, in 2009, before returning to campus. While recuperating from major surgery, he sat in on gender classes that his wife was taking at Three Rivers Community College. The courses fascinated Richmond so much that he decided to pursue similar courses at Eastern.

“Whether in a Renaissance Literature or Feminist Theories class, Sean’s high academic standards for himself are evident,” said McDonnell, who had previously taught Richmond during his history program. “I’ve learned a lot by watching him in these spaces, and as he’s advocated for fellow veterans. Sean’s choice to share his experiences and knowledge with students, including those in special education settings, is one I admire greatly.”
“I want to teach students with intellectual disabilities,” said Richmond. “My special education career path comes from working for 11 years as a staff member in a private group home. My group home experience was one of the most rewarding times in my life, and becoming a teacher and mentor for student with these conditions and diagnosis will be just as rewarding. However, this is an experience stop, with my ultimate goal to one day become a peer to my mentors at Eastern. They have inspired me to want to teach at the highest level of academia.”

One of Richmond’s projects, involving four other students, entailed creating an anthology of current and past lesbianism in popular culture. “This project allowed all of the students involved to find out how lesbianism was portrayed in the mass consumer audience. Little did we realize when we started this project how rewarding the work would be. Each meeting was filled with excitement, and we really liked being able to share our findings with each other, and eventually the class.”

Along the way, Richmond interned as a teaching assistant with English Professor Meredith Clermont-Ferrand, grading papers, instructing sections of the course and helping her with research on her memoirs. He also interned in the Women’s Center, helping with projects that examined how men can help prevent sexual assaults. “It was a rewarding process to talk to men in my college community and help broaden their outlooks on their possible impact on the Eastern, and their home, community.”

“Empowering our students to lead socially responsible lives in an increasingly diverse society is a fundamental element of Eastern’s liberal arts mission,” said Eastern President Elsa Núñez. “How gender impacts our personal and social experiences is an important part of the dialog on our campus, and the women’s and gender studies program enhances our culture of respect and inclusion. Promoting leadership roles for women in our society is especially important on a campus where 54 percent of the students are women. The fact that the program is being offered by faculty across several academic disciplines is also appropriate for our liberal arts campus. More meaningful discussions of social justice and equity are taking place on campus as a result of this program.”

Deanna Jimenez ’16, a WGS major from Bridgeport with a sustainable energy minor, started off as a biology major. After taking a course on feminist theory and realizing her interest in the social sciences, she switched majors to WGS. Jimenez is in her third year interning with Planned Parenthood.

“I didn’t realize how much I missed a discussion-based class, and how beneficial that is,” she said. “I was sick of factual-based work; was craving something else. I fell into the program and ended up loving it.

“This field has taught me what it truly means to be empathetic and a good listener; about being able to hold a conversation and really hear the other person,” she said. “It’s taught me great communication skills; the way I talk to people and words I choose. It’s taught me how to be perceptive of other people’s experiences. By becoming more self-aware and aware of the world, I’m a better person.”

“Learning how to listen, and learn from, voices that are often unheard or deliberately silenced is a vital part of women’s studies,” said McDonnell. “What we don’t know often hurts us. Our program asks people to consider how social systems and our multiple identities shape our experiences of our world. This education and self-reflection is vital if we wish to combat oppression and advocate for justice. Because of how indebted women’s studies is to past activists, our program often attracts students who wish to be agents for change. The faculty and students involved in this program are engaged in critical thinking and social responsibility — and, in doing so, we honor Eastern’s commitment to the liberal arts.”

Critical for McDonnell is how the WGS major links the classroom to the real world of work in a wide range of workplace settings. “With this major, students are able to apply their acquired knowledge, analytical skills and competencies in everyday situations. Because women’s and gender studies is an interdisciplinary program, our students have a wide range of job opportunities.”

The program provides internships in social service agencies across the state, such as Planned Parenthood, the news media — including the Norwich Bulletin —  and transgender  advocacy groups, just to name a few. Our internships allow students to prepare to work in fields such as law, social work, the media, public policy, health care, education and education administration, politics, business, psychology, communication and in non-profit organizations.”

McDonnell said the major embraces a global perspective as well: “It is generally not known that women own only one percent of the world’s wealth, or that of the 100 million homeless people in the world, most are women and dependent children, or that every day, 50,000 people, mostly women and children, die as a result of poor shelter, polluted water and inadequate sanitation.”

For more information about Eastern’s major in women’s and gender studies, contact McDonnell at or call (860) 465-4570.

Written by dwight bachman and ed osborn

Categories: Academics