Symposium focuses on women and leadership

Last week the Middlebury Women Leaders, a student-run organization at Middlebury College, held a three-day-long symposium featuring discussions and workshops led by women.
Among the events were a conflict mediation workshop by Middlebury College president Laurie Patton; a Q&A with Nancy Gibbs, the first female editor-in-chief of TIME Magazine; a discussion with the local Nulhegan Abenaki Native American Tribe; and a fashion show that benefitted She Should Run, a nonpartisan nonprofit that encourages women to run for public office.
The symposium was organized by seven club members, but was chiefly the brainchild of Middlebury senior Erin Van Gessel, who took over the club’s leadership this past semester.
The Independent caught up with Van Gessel to hear about the best moments from the event and her efforts to empower women on campus.
Addison Independent: What inspired you to hold this symposium?
Erin Van Gessel: The primary reason we held it this weekend was to commemorate the Women’s March of 2017. At Middlebury, we’re pretty isolated. We’re not close to big cities, and sometimes I think it’s hard for us, as students, to feel like we can make an impact or have a say. I wanted to give us a platform to talk about this big national issue: the fight for equality and the women’s movement.
AI: What was it like to interview Nancy Gibbs?
EVG: It was the best. Everything she says is so insightful. She speaks just as eloquently as she writes — you can hear her author’s voice in the way that she creates a story with every point that she makes. She shared so many insights about women’s empowerment, women in the workplace, TIME and the media today. She’s a role model for everyone, it doesn’t matter what your gender is.
AI: And aside from that, what were a few of your other favorite moments from the symposium?
EVG: One highlight was the fashion show, which was our grand finale. It had been a marathon of sprinting for me the whole weekend. I had such high hopes for the fashion show, and was ready for it to be a killer success. I was a little bummed when the turnout was smaller than I had hoped for. I was worried that the girls who were modeling were going to feel a little let down, too.
But I was sitting backstage, and when they came back in, I was ready for them to be sort of sullen, but they were all laughing and smiling and high-fiving. They had a blast, and that’s where I realized that it doesn’t matter that it wasn’t a crazy huge crowd. My goal for the symposium was to generate excitement and make girls feel supported and get them pumped up about the women’s community on campus for 2018. Seeing those girls’ reactions made me realize that we succeeded in that.
AI: Tell me about the Middlebury Women Leaders club. What else do you guys do on campus?
EVG: It was a club that had been around for a while, but wasn’t that active. I felt like there was a need for it on campus, and I had the time to put in the effort to make that happen. Now, our email list has 180 people on it, but in terms of coming to our events, it fluctuates. I’d say we normally get around 12 to 15 girls per meeting.
It operates like a “Lean In” circle, from the book by Sheryl Sandberg. It looks at how we can get more women empowered at work, and how men can be partners in that fight. Recently, we went over the Lean In Women in the Workplace Report from 2017, because they partnered with McKinsey (a global management consulting company) and looked at, for example, how many women are in the C-Suite, how often are women being promoted, versus men. So we focus on those types of issues. 
AI: Tell me a bit about you.
EVG: I’m majoring in political science. A lot of people are surprised by that, because they assume I’m going to be a gender studies major, but I’ve actually never taken a gender studies class before. I’m from San Rafael, Calif., and I started at Middlebury in February of 2014.
After this, I’m moving to New York to work in the field of executive search. Specifically, I’m going to work on placing people as new board members at large companies. The goal is to focus on diversity initiatives in particular — getting more women and people of color on those boards.
AI: What kind of feedback have you been getting about the symposium, and do you think someone will organize it again after you graduate?
EVG: A number of girls have reached out to say they’re really interested in Middlebury Women Leaders, and they can’t wait to participate next year. So it’s the new interest that it brought up, and the continuing commitment to the club and the cause — it’s exciting.
I feel really proud of everyone who was involved in it, and all the girls who helped plan it, particularly Rae Aaron (’19.5), MWL treasurer, and Maryam Mahboob (’18), vice president, they were my go-to. They had such a palpable excitement and energy all throughout the weekend, and it felt awesome. Everyone who showed up had rave reviews about the events they attended, and that’s what matters to me at the end of the day. I feel like it was a success, and I’m excited to pass on the torch to younger girls on campus and see where they take it.

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