UI program empowers women to take on leadership roles
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When Katherine Valde was elected president of the University of Iowa’s undergraduate student government in 2013, she became only the fourth woman to serve in the role since 1990.
The senior history and political science major in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences from Coralville, Iowa, says she may not have run for the office had it not been for her participation in the Iowa N.E.W. Leadership program after completing her freshman year.
“I knew it had been nearly 10 years since a woman had been president. That kind of stuck in my craw, and I harkened back to what I learned in Iowa N.E.W.,” says Valde, who had been involved in her high school student government. “I think it’s important for students, especially those coming in as freshmen, to see women in leadership roles.”
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Empowering women to see themselves as leaders is one of the main goals of Iowa N.E.W. Leadership, a five-day institute held on the UI campus each May through the UI Women’s Resource and Action Center. Developed at Rutgers University as National Education for Women’s Leadership in 1991, the national bipartisan program was designed to educate college women about the political process and teach them effective leadership skills. It is now offered at more than 20 colleges and universities; Iowa joined the network in 2007.
During the intensive, residential program, participants develop skills and knowledge in key areas such as strategic communication, policy analysis, wage negotiation, conflict management, and networking. They also work on a political action project that requires them to research and defend policy on a chosen topic. Staff members enlist the help of local community leaders, including politicians and business owners, to conduct the sessions.
“The participants learn from others’ experiences and make valuable connections, but they also build concrete skills, such as crafting an effective message and managing an online profile,” says program coordinator Avi Deol.
The institute is free (participants stay at the Iowa House Hotel in the student union), but admission is selective. Participants must be Iowa residents who are enrolled at least half-time in any postsecondary academic institution in Iowa. Only 35 spots are available, and about half of them are reserved for UI students.
“We’re very intentional about diversity and representation, taking into consideration factors such as race and ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, first-generation status, and academic discipline,” Deol says. “We also gauge applicants’ potential for civic and political involvement. We want to nurture the skills they already have and empower them so that when they leave, they may run for office.”
While Valde is studying political science and aspires to serve in public office, Deol say students of all majors and career plans are encouraged to apply.
“Even if you don’t want to be president, you can be a leader in your field. And no matter where you go, policy will influence your life,” she explains. “Wherever participants end up, they’ll be interacting with other individuals and rising up in their field. The program can empower them to voice their concerns and stand up for others.”
Deol and Valde both note that the programming is especially important in Iowa, where voters have yet to elect a woman to the governor’s office or to the U.S. Senate.
“When women are in leadership roles, they not only can gain a lot of skills, they also do a lot of good,” Valde says. “This program was great, especially in terms of confidence building. It’s important for women to see themselves as leaders, and not just in supporting roles.”