By B.L. Wilson
George Washington University’s Women’s Leadership Program (WLP) celebrated a 20-year history of building a supportive community that centers women in education Thursday evening, connecting its past, present and future with the 20 X 20 Project.
The project relates the history of the WLP through the stories of 20 alumnae who moved through the program over two decades. It features portraits of them that now hang in the Eckles Library on the Mount Vernon Campus and interviews on the WLP website. Many of those alumnae returned to the campus Thursday evening 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 the celebration of its 20-year anniversary was delayed because of the pandemic.
GW Provost Christopher Alan Bracey kicked off the Thursday evening celebration, addressing GW faculty, students, alumni and supporters who gathered, noting that more than 2,000 women have passed through the program since its inception. Bracey said that many of the those women contribute as leaders in student organizations, on executive boards, as mentors to build community at GW and move on to become “Fulbright and Marshall scholars, lawyers, doctors and CEOs.”
“The George Washington University works to equip students with the knowledge and skills to become citizen leaders in their field and change the world,” Bracey said. “It is clear from the remarkable exhibit of individuals that we have here and on the walls—which is fabulous by the way—that the WLP alumnae have gone above and beyond achieving this goal.”
The WLP, a selective program for first-year women, is part of GW’s commitment to the legacy of the Mount Vernon Seminary and Mount Vernon College, a green idyllic space in Northwest Washington, D.C., less than three miles from GW’s Foggy Bottom Campus. The program also serves as a tribute to Elizabeth J. Somers’ lifelong dedication to educating and promoting academic excellence and leadership among women.
Students in the WLP program live at Somers Hall on the Mount Vernon Campus and take courses within WLP for a year, Director Carly Jordan said, “to get them launched into the futures that they want. But if we are doing things right, if we’re building the supportive community, then the WLP students come back. And they do.”
“They come back as sophomores to eat pizza with 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 about how they found their first internship or the study abroad program that they did and as so many alums, now GW graduates, have come back to us tonight to celebrate our history and to network with our future.”
For many, the evening celebration was a reunion, filled with nostalgia, pride and gratitude with hugs and broad smiles. It was an opportunity for many in the current WLP cohort to connect with women already established in their careers who readily extended themselves as guides and mentors. Current members of the program introduced the evening’s speakers and described their first months on the Mount Vernon Campus as a safe space that has provided opportunities to meet people in their field of interests.
The WLP alumnae who spoke during the presentations reflected on the paths they had followed at GW after leaving the program, after graduating and often pursuing advanced degrees.
Jenna Ben-Yehuda, B.A. ’02, began with a description of the culture shock she experienced arriving on 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,” which drew laughter from the audience.
Over the years, the alumnae said, they have kept in touch with each other, attended weddings and baby showers and crossed paths, at times overseas, as had Heera Kamboj, B.A. ’05, who served as a bridesmaid for a classmate with whom she had been in the foreign service.
“We actually do stay in touch because WLP was such a bonding experience… part of something more than just 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 is really going to set you apart.”
Others were reuniting with peers and faculty for the first time after many years apart. “I just saw Monica Law who was my mentor when I was a student and followed me throughout my journey,” said Samah McGona Sisay, B.A. ’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 first-year GW students but being put at ease by young women like themselves, who were supportive and, like them, venturing out in life for the first time.
“This campus is so stunning, so idyllic,” said Gillian Giannetti, B.A. ’08. “It seems to me to be a beautiful example of a transition from high school to being in college. The fellowship I found, not only in class, but living with these same women has continued to affect me through my entire life.”
Former Director Mary Buckley introduced Meghan Shea, M.A. ’07, who along with her husband, Mike Rogers, created the multimedia 20 X 20 Project that links the Eckles portraits and the WLP alumni videos using QR codes. “Narrating the WLP history through the voices of our alumni was the goal; and bringing together the featured alumnae tonight to celebrate the opening of the show is exciting and inspiring for our community,” Buckley said.
Meghan Shea, in turn, introduced eight alumni who shared their reflections on WLP. “The idea was that these individual stories would act as a sort of collective representation of WLP,” she said, “to shine a light on some of the multitude of ways that WLP has shaped and impacted its participants.”
Geneva Henry, dean of libraries and academic innovation, and vice provost for libraries and information technology, addressed the assembled group before they dispersed, to express her “delight in [hearing the reflections] of women who’d been through the program.
“Memories matter,” Henry said. “I’m glad we were able to celebrate this here at 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. (See video interviews of all 20 members in the 20 X 20 Project on the WLP website.)