Together We Shine: Lessons from my Center for Women Board Membership

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Becky Kenemuth, University of Maryland

February 13, 2019

During the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Abbey D’Agostino of the U.S. and Nikki Hamblin of New Zealand did not medal in the women’s 5000-meter event, though they certainly shined.  Nearly three-quarters through the first-round race they collided, both falling onto the track. D’Agostino lifted herself up unphased, but Hamblin was grounded, grimacing in agony. When Abbey saw her competition in pain, she helped Nikki to stand and served as a crutch so they could cross the finish line together.

Neither runner placed in the event, but media worldwide lauded them as the “real winners” of the Rio games. Together, they shined.

Ann Friedman, a journalist for The Cut, coined the term “Shine Theory.” In her article titled “Shine Theory: Why Powerful Women Make the Greatest Friends,” Friedman challenges the aged notion that women must compete against and aim to overshadow each other to achieve individual success. Her idea that “if you shine, I shine,” directly contradicts the decades-old concept of the “Queen Bee Syndrome,” which dates back to research first conducted in the 1970’s. The “Queen Bee Syndrome” describes the behaviors and attitudes of women who, as a means for maintaining their status, treat other women critically and judgmentally. 

I am ashamed to admit it, but I used to be more aligned with “Team Queen Bee” than “Team Shine Theory.” Judge-y. Critical. Harsh. Fault-finding. I was under the false impression that there wasn’t enough room for all women at the top.

A decade-ish ago, a mentor invited me to join a group of intelligent and driven professional women in higher education who were planning a large-scale conference on college women’s leadership.  The thought of coming together with other women to cooperatively accomplish a goal was novel to me. In fact, it was down-right foreign. Flattered by the offer, I agreed to participate. The pin dropped on the start of my new journey - one through which I learned about the unbreakable force and overwhelming energy of sisterhoods.  Over the next few years, I served on the committee and saw, time and time again, the power of collaborative partnerships among women. It became clear to me that the sum of our whole is vastly stronger than our individual parts.

One thing led to another, and I was honored to be invited to join the Board for NASPA’s Center for Women (CFW), a group of smart, hard-working, and passionate professionals that is centered on promoting, supporting, and advancing women in higher education.  From hosting Lunch & Learns, to sponsoring a year-long mentorship program, to recognizing and rewarding women in the field for the great work they do, the CFW agenda is bustling and impressive. Years later, after having served two terms as a board member for CFW, I often wonder if I’ve gotten more from the experience then I have given. Sure, I have shared time and energy, but those hardly seem to equate to the invaluable knowledge, unbeatable network, mentorship, support, and special relationships I’ve gleaned. My participation on the CFW Board, seeing the awesome capacity of a motivated and collaborative group of women, convinced me even further that we shine brighter together.

In reflection on my CFW experience, I can’t help but to think about and thank the many women, both historical and present, whose work positively impacts women in higher education.  From Frances Willard, the first female college president in the United States in 1871, to Alice Palmer, the first Dean of Women who was appointed to the position at the University of Chicago in 1892, to Dr. Amy Gutmann, the current president of the University of Pennsylvania, brave, smart, and motivated women throughout history have changed the landscape at institutions nationwide.  Of course, inspiration comes in all sizes and even the tiniest of efforts can change the course of history.

Therefore, I am excited to share with you that the Center for Women is launching the 2019 Women’s History Month Initiative, which will recognize women mentors, colleagues, and role models for the ways that they have influenced both higher education and our individual professional journeys. 

On behalf of the Center for Women, I invite you to share stories that honor the women who have inspired you and the community from the smallest to the grandest levels. During Women’s History Month in March, the Center for Women will post your recognitions via social media (find us on twitter @NASPA_Women) as a celebration of women in higher education from yesterday, today, and into the future. It is one of the many efforts that CFW has designed and implemented to make higher education an environment where women thrive. 

To celebrate women who have positively influenced your journey and the higher education community, please visit 2019 Women’s History Month Initiative to submit a recognition form.  

As I round out my time on NASPA’s Center for Women Board,  I give thought to my experiences - lessons learned, stories shared, opportunities embraced, goals accomplished, efforts implemented, knowledge disseminated.  I owe a great deal of gratitude to those who have guided and inspired me. Most significantly, I am thankful for how my time on CFW has extracted me from the beehive and shown me that when we shine together, we illuminate the future. 

Becky Kenemuth is passionate about empowering and advancing women and girls, particularly in STEM fields. She serves as the Assistant Director for Outreach and Recruitment for the Women in Engineering Program at the University of Maryland. Becky is also the mom of two rambunctious boys who love being outdoors biking, skiing, and running as much as she does. She is a Board member on the NASPA Center for Women.

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