By B. L. Wilson
The George Washington University Women’s Leadership Program (WLP) celebrated a 20-year history of building a supportive community that centers women in education on Thursday night, connecting their past, present and future with the 20 X 20 project.
The project tells the story of the WLP through the stories of 20 former students who have been through the program for two decades. It features portraits of them that now hang in the Eckles Library on the Mount Vernon campus and interviews in the WLP website. Many of those alumnae returned to campus Thursday night to share their stories and network with the current WLP cohort. Nine of the 20 spoke at the celebration Thursday night.
The program began in 1999, but its 20th anniversary celebration was delayed due to the pandemic.
GW Chancellor Christopher Alan Bracey kicked off Thursday night’s celebration, addressing the assembled faculty, students, alumni and GW supporters, noting that more than 2,000 women have passed through the program since its inception. Bracey said many of those women contribute as leaders in student organizations, on executive boards, as mentors to build community at GW, and go on to become “Fulbright and Marshall scholars, attorneys, doctors and CEOs.”
“The George Washington University works to equip students with the knowledge and skills to become leading citizens in their field and change the world,” said Bracey. “It’s clear from the remarkable display of individuals we have here and on the walls, which is fabulous by the way, that WLP alumni have gone above and beyond to achieve this goal.”
The WLP, a selective program for female freshmen, is part of GW’s commitment to the legacy of Mount Vernon Seminary and Mount Vernon College, an idyllic green space in northwest Washington, DC, less than three miles from the Foggy campus. Bottom of GW. The program also serves as a tribute to Elizabeth J Somers‘ Lifelong dedication to educating and promoting academic excellence and leadership among women.
WLP students live in Somers Hall on the Mount Vernon campus and take courses within WLP for a year, said Director Carly Jordan, “so they can launch into the future they want. But if we’re doing things right, if we’re building a supportive community, then WLP students come back. And they do.
“They come back as sophomores to eat pizza with the incoming students and help them figure out how to make this big transition,” Jordan continued. “They come back as juniors and seniors to tell us how they found their first internship or study abroad program and how so many alumni, now GW graduates, have come back to us tonight to celebrate our history and connect with our future. .”
For many, the night’s celebration was a reunion, full of nostalgia, pride and gratitude with hugs and wide smiles. It was an opportunity for many in the current WLP cohort to connect with women already established in their careers who easily reached out as guides and mentors. Current members of the program introduced the evening’s speakers and described their first few months on the Mount Vernon campus as a safe space that has provided opportunities to meet people in their field of interest.
The WLP alumnae who spoke during the presentations reflected on the paths they had followed at GW after leaving the program, graduating and often earning advanced degrees.
Jenna Ben-Yehuda, BA ’02, began with a description of the culture shock she experienced arriving at the Mount Vernon campus from California the year the program began, wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the words “Talk to me. I’m not from New Jersey,” drawing laughter from the audience.
Over the years, the alumni said, they kept in touch, attending weddings and baby showers and crossing paths, sometimes abroad, as did Heera Kamboj, BA ’05, who served as maid of honor for a classmate with whom she had been in the foreign service.
“We actually keep in touch because WLP was a bonding experience… part of something other than going to college,” Kamboj said. “It’s such a transformative experience to be here for a goal, a common goal, an objective and a common interest that will really set you apart.”
Others were meeting their classmates and teachers for the first time after many years apart. “I just saw Monica Law, who was my mentor when she was a student and she followed me through my journey,” said Samah McGona Sisay, BA ’15. “I feel like I grew up in an environment where my family believed in me.”
One after another, they described arriving as nervous and scared freshmen at GW, but feeling comfortable with young women like themselves, who supported them and, like them, ventured into life for the first time.
“This campus is so stunning, so idyllic,” said Gillian Giannetti, BA ’08. “I think it’s a beautiful example of a transition from high school to college. The companionship I found, not only in class, but also living with these same women has continued to affect me throughout my life.”
Former Principal Mary Buckley introduced Meghan Shea, MA ’07, who along with her husband, Mike Rogers, created the 20 X 20 Multimedia Project that links Eckles portraits and WLP alumni videos using QR codes. “Telling the WLP story through the voices of our alumni was the goal; and bringing the featured alumni together tonight to celebrate the launch of the program is exciting and inspiring for our community,” said Buckley.
Meghan Shea, in turn, introduced eight alumni who shared their thoughts on WLP. “The idea was that these individual stories would act as a kind of collective representation of WLP,” she said, “to shed light on some of the many ways that WLP has shaped and impacted its participants.”
Geneva Henry, dean of libraries and academic innovation, and vice chancellor for libraries and information technology, addressed the assembled group before they dispersed, expressing her “pleasure to [hearing the reflections] of women who had gone through the program.
“Memories matter,” said Henry. “I’m glad we were able to celebrate this here at the Eckles Library. It is a place of community, a place where you can feel the kind of community that the WLP program has built.”
See portraits and quotes from the eight alumnae who spoke in person at the celebration in the gallery below. (Watch video interviews of all 20 members in the 20 X 20 Project on the WLP website).