Student Affairs Sisters: My Experience at the Women’s Leadership Institute

Sarah Shields

February 19, 2018

It was a warm December afternoon as I stepped off the plane in Florida, ready for a weekend of learning and growing with three hundred of my closest higher ed friends. The Women’s Leadership Institute (WLI), which takes place around the same time every year, promised  “to provide an experience that caters to women’s needs within the higher education profession” and “to give women in higher education information, education, and support in the pursuit of executive leadership positions on campus.” The program highlights included sessions on developing executive presence, strategies for effective negotiation, and how to navigate organizational politics. However, the institute also promoted relationship building and self-care as two of its top priorities - two things that are usually missing at large, national conferences.

It was these priorities that really made the institute stand out to me and made it not just another conference that I attended but one in which I was truly engaged. From the opening keynote on the first night, led by the incredible and motivating Deesha Dyer (former Social Secretary for President Obama), the tone of the weekend was set, and it became clear to all of us that this was about to be a very special experience. We were encouraged to get to know each other as women, both inside and outside of sessions, and told that self-care was not just an option, but also an almost mandatory priority, that was built right into the schedule. Through small-group discussions, ignite-style rapid presentations, and casual conversations around campfires at night, we were tasked with exploring topics specifically relevant to being a woman working in a college environment, where executive-level positions are still dominated by men. We asked tough questions. We told stories. We made connections outside of our functional areas and geographical locations. Most importantly, we were in spaces where our voices were always heard and our contributions were always valued.

If you turn on the news or read Twitter these days, it’s incredible to see movements like #MeToo and #TimesUp and the effect they’re having on our national consciousness. Likewise, last month’s Women’s Marches drew a record number of women and their allies. Across the country, women are realizing the awesome opportunity and responsibility we have to make our voices heard and stand up against forces that have held us back for generations. And this important dialogue was not lost on the participants of WLI. On the contrary, it was expertly woven throughout the fabric of the institute and became the foundation for many breakout sessions and lunchtime discussions. While we may not have left with all of the world’s issues solved and wrapped in a neat little bow, we traveled back to our home institutions with concrete strategies that we could use to move the needle even just a little bit more toward progress. And not only that, we came back with an amazing group of women who we know we can call on when times are tough or we need that little bit of inspiration to keep doing great work. As the saying goes, “Behind every successful woman, is a tribe of other successful women that have her back”. Thanks, WLI, for giving me my own higher ed tribe. Now let’s go change the world.

P.S. - Check out #WLI17 for some great takeaways from the institute!

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Sarah Shields currently serves as the Assistant Director for Student Activities at New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering. She recently gave into her travel bug by moving to London and completing a Master’s of Social Justice & Education at University College London, and when she’s not on a plane, train, or bus, you can find her on her couch watching Netflix documentaries or taking long walks through her favorite New York City neighborhoods.

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