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Noliwe Rooks, center, professor of Africana studies in the College of Arts and Sciences, helps lead a discussion during a Wonder Women class this fall on North Campus.

Learning Where You Live course empowers women

The course is officially ASRC 1120 in the roster of 2019-20 Courses of Study, but its unofficial title says it all.

Wonder Women, a “Learning Where You Live” course for North Campus residents, engages participants in weekly discussions with guest speakers over personal definitions of success, decision-making and identity building. The course is presented by the Africana Studies and Research Center.

First-year student Emily Robinson ’23 said she was inspired by the course.

“I decided to join this course because I thought it would be really empowering to meet different women from different fields,” Robinson said. “I really appreciate how real the women were about their experiences.”

Held in faculty-in-residence apartments, the fall class was led by professors Noliwe Rooks of Africana studies and Lori Leonard from the Department of Development Sociology, and associate professor Dawn Schrader in the Department of Communication.

“There’s something special about having a class hosted by women about women. It opens up a community,” Rooks said. “By listening to the different journeys of these various women, the points of convergence as well as divergence, we can all grow.”

The course was initiated by Leonard in 2017 and has been taught by Leonard and Rooks since its inception; Schrader joined the team this fall. Notable guest speakers have included New York State Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton, D-125th, and Kathy Zoner, former Cornell University Police chief.

The setup is casual – students sit on couches while listening to the “wonder woman” of the week. Guest speakers tell their stories, then open the session up for discussion on topics such as work-life balance, overcoming the common obstacles women endure in the workforce, and developing self-confidence.

“One of the main goals of the class is for students to rethink failure and success,” Leonard said “People have a lot of preconceived notions about what those are, and I think those ideas begin to get scrambled in a class like this. Success is not an endpoint and so many of our speakers have demonstrated that.”

Participants – including one male student this semester – note that the course has encouraged them to reimagine their own life paths.

“The most surprising thing I learned from all the different speakers is that there is no such thing as one linear path to success,” said Julia Allen ’23. “The course changed how I think about my future. It made me realize that success has many definitions as all of us live different lives.”

Throughout the session a recurring question arose: What does it mean to be a “wonder woman”? Not only does the course shape how students define the idea, but it also reframes how guest speakers view themselves.

“When I was first invited to speak, I thought, am I a wonder woman? And as I thought about it more, I realized I’m a very self-made person,” said Mia Pancaldo, a clinical psychologist in Ithaca, who was the semester’s final guest speaker.

In Pancaldo’s talk, she stressed the importance of seeking mentors.

“We live in a very self-centered world, and community is falling apart,” she said. “But there really are people out there who will support students to get them where they want to be.”

Leonard, Rooks and Schrader said they hope that the students will build lasting relationships through the connections made throughout the course, and that they will continue to be active listeners and inquirers during their time at Cornell and beyond.

“What I hope students will realize,” Schrader said, “is that they can love learning for learning’s sake and that learning can take place anywhere – not just within a classroom, but in someone’s living room. Learning can come from anyone, not just professors but from speakers and from engaging with each other.”

Amaris Janel Henderson is a communications assistant for the College of Arts and Sciences.

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Abby Butler