Here’s to the Women Who Impacted Members of the GW Community Part 2
Throughout Women’s History Month, GW Today is highlighting strong women through first-person testimonials.
March marks Women’s History Month, and GW Today asked members of the George Washington University community to share a story of a woman who has shaped or influenced their lives. Here is part two of three of what some had to say about mothers, co-workers, friends, sisters-in-law and others.
Nemata Blyden (Faculty, History and International Affairs)
Jeanette Maund, my great aunt, changed my mother, Amelia’s, life, and thus mine. Born in 1910, one of four siblings, she lost both parents at a young age and spent time in a New York orphanage. Raised by her aunt and uncle in Massachusetts, the young Black girl was destined to end up either as a domestic or in an industrial job. Refusing to accept this as her fate, Jeanette saved up and in her late 20s entered Hampton Institute as a first-year student.
Jeanette is noted as the first African American woman hired by Pepsi-Cola Company in 1940. Her job was to market Pepsi to Black consumers. She pursued a master’s degree in social work at Columbia University, becoming a role model for my mother. Jeanette inspired my mother to aim high. Amelia attended Boston University and at the age of 56 got her Ed.D. from Teachers College, Columbia University, becoming a professor at the College of New Jersey, where for 14 years she taught and supervised aspiring teachers in the Department of Special Education. It is self-evident why Jeanette Maund and Amelia Blyden are my inspiration. They taught me perseverance against the odds.
Helena Chapman (Faculty, Milken Institute School of Public Health)
My professional success as a physician, public health educator and researcher is a direct result of the influence of one inspirational woman: my mother, Marianne Mathewson-Chapman. Growing up, I was inspired by my mother’s civilian and military nursing career and overseas deployment, where she promoted the “Fit to Fight and Health for Life” theme to enhance veterans’ combat readiness and post-deployment reintegration to civilian life. Her professional accomplishments have paved the way for female civilian and military health professionals caring for our nation’s veterans.
Her unconditional support and steady guidance throughout my career reassured me to be creative, appreciate each milestone, learn from each obstacle and share knowledge with next generations. As I found my passion in the health disciplines, my mother remained my biggest cheerleader along my career path in the United States, Cuba and Dominican Republic. She encouraged me to explore opportunities to positively influence population health by volunteering at the VA Medical Center, studying the Spanish language, moving abroad to pursue medical and research training, and exploring research gaps in dengue and tuberculosis control. Upon reflection, as she has made an indelible mark on my career choices, I can empower other women along their unique journeys.
Imani M. Cheers (Faculty, School of Media and Public Affairs)
My mother, Darline Cheers, is a faithful and fierce fighter. After being diagnosed with Lupus and chronic lung disease in 1990, she was determined, dedicated and dutiful in her pursuit of a holistic healing. Darline exemplified graceful gratitude in everything she accomplished. From her early years as a social worker in her hometown of St. Louis to her time as an educational equity and equality advocate in Johannesburg, South Africa, my mother was passionate in her purpose. She loves her children and grandson, Isaiah, above all else, and it is an honor to pay her homage. I love you mom, thank you!
Lizzy Cruz (Student, Columbian College of Arts and Sciences)
I would like to highlight my mother, Elsie Leon-Cruz, who continues to inspire me every day. My mom is a fierce leader and knows how to bring people together. Whether it is through family gatherings or leading as a manager or as a teacher in the classroom, she knows how to bring a group together. She sets an example to strive for better. She sets an example to learn. She sets an example that it is okay to adapt to change, no matter how daunting the change might be. My mom used to work as a market manager at Chase and Santander. She then made a career change in her mid-50s, becoming a teacher, something she always wanted to be. She went back to school to get her master’s in education, all when the pandemic first hit. From her journey, I learned that it is never too late to go after something you have always wanted to do. She gives me tough love when it is needed, and I am grateful for it. She is unequivocally authentic. I am where I am today because of her and am incredibly grateful to have her as a mother and role model.
Anne Dean (Staff, Development and Alumni Relations)
I want to highlight Sylvia Galen. I have known Sylvia for nearly my entire 10 years working at GW—we both started in Development and Alumni Relations in 2012. In that time, we have done lots of projects together and taught and learned a lot. But the moments where Sylvia changed my personal life were in 2017. I was facing a personal trauma, and Sylvia was then my manager (we have had lots of different working relationships in our decade together) and she showed up.
Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant's book "Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy" was not out yet, but everything I read in that book on how to show up for someone grieving and going through pain, I had learned from Sylvia. After one call home from the hospital, she showed up on my doorstep with bags of my favorite healthy foods. She provided a listening ear always. She and two others took me to lunch my first official day back, and during the conversation, I realized I was not alone in my loss. She was able to help me find healthy professional boundaries when my family needed more of me than usual. Because of her, I can say I felt fully supported by my GW family in that terrible time. Sylvia set the bar for me on how to be a professional and always show care—but particularly when a team member is going through a traumatic moment in their lives. Because of her, I'm a better leader. In our family and in my book, she is truly the Greatest of All Time.
Douglas Frazier (Staff, Campus Dining Services)
My grandmother, Loretta Williams, was the greatest person I've ever known. From the time I was born I watched my grandmother feed the entire community through both a center for senior citizens and a food pantry for those of us less fortunate. She carried forward when neighbors were upset and would yell and swear because they wanted the sweet cereal instead of the healthy, boring kind. She carried forward when the food pantry was broken into and robbed. Until the day she went Home she gave all of herself to her community and that is the reason I serve today. I've given myself to service to our country, senior communities, K-12 schools and now through the dining program here at GW.
AshaLetia Henderson (Graduate Student, Milken Institute School of Public Health)
My great-grandma, Zelma Henderson, is a woman I must honor for Women’s History Month. Zelma Henderson was the last surviving plaintiff in the historic Brown vs. Board of Education class-action suit. She was one of seven parents, along with Oliver Brown—Linda Brown’s father—who sued the Topeka, Kansas, Board of Education so their children could go to what had been an all-white elementary school. In 1954, the case made it all the way to the Supreme Court where a unanimous verdict against school segregation was issued, as it was determined to be “inherently unequal.”
Despite the existing Jim Crow Laws during that time and real possibility of death, Zelma risked it all to fight for my right, and that of millions of other Black and brown children, to have a fair chance at receiving the adequate education we were once denied. Because of her bravery and tenacity, I will be graduating with a master’s degree in 2023 from a historically predominantly white university. I will forever be grateful to her and the many other civil rights activists for their determination in making sure I remain a free person.
Grace Irwin (Student, School of Media and Public Affairs)
My mom has shaped my life in more ways than one could imagine. Even I can’t fully grasp how much she has impacted me, but as each day goes on, I see it more and more. As I make decisions, form relationships and live my day-to-day life, I constantly find pieces of the lessons she has taught me at the front of my mind. My mom taught me right from wrong and instilled values in all of her children that remain extremely important to all of us today. She stressed the significance of honesty, kindness, hard work and love. Most importantly, she showed me how to balance them all. She never stopped working and going above and beyond at her job every day. When she took days off, it was to take care of me or another family member who needed her. My mom’s commitment to maintaining excellence at her job and providing unconditional love for her family and friends has inspired me to be the best person I can be in all areas of life, and I could never thank her enough for that.
Ivy Ken (Faculty, Columbian College of Arts and Sciences)
Cynthia Deitch is an absolutely amazing woman. She came to GW in 1989 and totally transformed the Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies Program. Because of her, thousands of students have gone on to influence public policy in feminist and anti-racist ways that have had lasting effects.
But more personally, Professor Deitch has been my guiding light here at GW. She is kind and generous, and she also has an unshakable commitment to social justice. Every time I talk with her or sit in a meeting with her, I learn something I hadn't thought of before. She literally helps me think. She has supported me just like she has supported so many feminists who have come through this university, and I am enormously grateful for her influence!
Bella Lilly (Student, Columbian College of Arts and Sciences)
I would like to highlight Anju Wadhwa, a fabulous professor at GW. She has always looked out for her students in and beyond her class. She will answer emails at all hours about anything you want to talk about whether it be school related, your mental health or advice. She makes the subject of learning fun and entertaining through her lively energy and positive outlook on life. Her teaching expands beyond the books when she applies her lessons to real life through advice along with building mentor relationships beyond the semester you take her classes. Anju has really helped me love learning and also I have valued all of the advice she has given!