Hand in Hand
by France Griggs Sloat
Three years ago, as she was preparing for first semester final exams, Nalinka Ratnavibushanan was also preparing to give birth. Between rearranging her exam schedule with professors and finishing papers, she gathered what few baby items she could afford. And then, in the middle of exam week, Ananya was born.
Nalinka hadn’t planned it this way, of course, but now, with graduation looming one semester away, the psychology major has learned a lot about herself and the world. She also discovered Xavier was unprepared for her—a traditional undergraduate student with a baby. There were no places set aside for nursing mothers, and none of the restrooms in the Gallagher Student Center or the classroom buildings had diaper-changing stations.
In short, there was no formal support system for students with babies, a small but growing minority nationwide. She remembers how alone she was that first year with a newborn, no roommate and her family back in Sri Lanka. She stayed home with the baby most of the time and came to campus only for class.
“I would rarely come to campus with her because it was awkward for people to have to see me with a baby sitting next to them in class, and there was no quiet place to feed her,” Nalinka says.
That has now changed. In April, the Women of Excellence and its Giving Circle awards program stepped up to fill these needs by awarding $45,500 in grants to eight projects that will help fulfill opportunities for women that might not otherwise be possible. And right at the top of the list is a project to install four baby-changing stations at the Gallagher Student Center.
The cost—$1,200—is a small sum, but it says so much. Nalinka, who helped write the grant application, says she’s not surprised that it was chosen, especially considering the increasing numbers of English as a Second Language and adult students on campus who also are parents. Not to mention the members of the public who visit Gallagher.
“I didn’t discover it until I had a need for it, and that was the awareness we wanted to create,” she says. Now an active member of Proponents for Parents, a new student group, Nalinka and senior Tracy Gnadinger wrote the proposal, “Care for the Whole Family,” to place changing stations in the women’s restrooms on each floor of Gallagher. Gnadinger says it’s just a start.
“I’m hoping Proponents for Parents will work to make Xavier a family-friendly atmosphere,” she says. “This is something we’ve been shooting for for awhile. It’s nice to see it come together.”
Helping such groups make Xavier more family-friendly, if it benefits students, satisfies the goals of the Giving Circle. But what’s telling is that of the 31 proposals submitted for funding, the top 10 selected to be voted on all involved women’s issues, such as addressing the sexual culture among undergraduates and supporting gender research.
“One of our goals with the Giving Circle is to give through the lens of a woman, and $1,200 for changing tables is a no-brainer,” says Norah Mock, executive director for the Women of Excellence. “The grants the Giving Circle is funding are those that enrich students’ lives. These programs will be those that truly resonate with our members, and most of our members are women.”
While most of the projects are supportive or nurturing, two of them—including the top vote-getter—involve hard-core academics in traditionally male-dominated fields. The project with the most votes comes from the Department of Mathematics. It aims to improve math instruction among women studying to become elementary and middle school teachers, seeking to correct the stereotype that most women teachers aren’t good at teaching math.
The other, which placed fifth, involves physics—from a female perspective. “Women Who Shaped Modern Physics,” submitted by physics professors Heidrun Schmitzer and Ann Frohlich, will be a new core physics course with a lab that explores not only the science that women physicists have contributed to physics, but the women themselves.
“I see the vote as a great sign that not only are science and math getting some funding, but specifically it’s from a women’s group looking to benefit women in a number of these fields,” Frohlich says. “Science has taken such a beating for a few years, and there has been a sort of a backlash for women in math and science, and I’m glad to see the pendulum is starting to swing in the other direction.”
The project’s $10,000 award will cover the cost of developing the course plus a number of speakers. Frohlich says their goal is to generate interest among women students to major in physics and improve the “abysmal” representation of women physicists, which now stands at 10 percent nationwide.
“I want to emphasize that not only do women have a future in fields like physics, but they have a past and a present,” Frohlich says. “We’re going to look at contributions from the past and women who are currently breaking ground in the field.”
The Giving Circle idea began after development officers decided in 2007 to form the Women of Excellence as a focal point for cultivating and engaging women alums, who historically had been overlooked as potential donors to the University’s Annual Fund. Now after 40 years and with more women students on campus than men, the University recognizes that women may eventually comprise a majority of its alumni base as well.
To appeal to women alums, the Women of Excellence created ways for them to be more engaged with the University, such as through mentoring women undergraduates and participating in events. And then last summer, with the blessing of Xavier University President Michael J. Graham, S.J., it launched the Giving Circle, which allows donors to be involved in how their money is used. Membership in the Giving Circle requires a minimum contribution of $1,000. The money is pooled, grant applications are sought from faculty, staff and students, and the members vote on which proposals get funded. Find a complete list of this year's Giving Circle winners here.
“I feel so strongly about the Giving Circle,” says Mary Beth Clary, chair of the Women of Excellence. “We want to give back to the University because the University gave so much to us. But were it not for Fr. Graham’s support, none of this would be happening .”
The Giving Circle is also a way for alumnae to support the $200 million To See Great Wonders campaign. Because Women of Excellence is part of the Annual Fund, and the Annual Fund is part of the campaign, contributions to Women of Excellence and its Giving Circle are also campaign donations.