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Graduating Women, Transforming Lives

UVU Women’s Success Center, Utah Women & Leadership Project help women fulfill their potential

By Barbara Christensen | Photography by Hans Koepsell

One of Utah Valley University’s core themes is student success. With that in mind, UVU created two partner programs: the Women’s Success Center (WSC) and the Utah Women & Leadership Project (UWLP). While the programs are separate entities, they work together to address women’s issues in education. The Women’s Success Center focuses on retaining female students and helping them earn their degrees. Its motto is “Graduating Women, Transforming Lives.” The UWLP works to strengthen the impact of Utah girls and women through informing, engaging, and developing their voices, confidence, influence, and leadership. 

Women’s Success Center

The WSC began as the Women’s Resource Center primarily focusing on assisting single parents, homemakers, and students with multiple risk factors. UVU President Matthew S. Holland created the Women’s Success Center in 2011 with an expansive mission to empower traditional female students while continuing services for non-traditional students. 

 The WSC provides support to prospective and current UVU students through their efforts to recruit, retain, and graduate female students. Assisting students with FAFSA applications, providing scholarships for students in need, and engaging students in meaningful experiences at UVU are central components of WSC efforts. The center also provides success coaching to support those who need a safe space to discuss problems and potential solutions. The WSC’s student group, the Women of UVU Association, offers leadership, mentoring, and volunteer opportunities to expand women’s horizons. In addition to direct student services, the Wee Care Center provides child care services for the children of students.

Tara Ivie was named the director of the Women’s Success Center in October, succeeding previous director Anne Wairepo. Ivie was previously assistant director of UVU’s Office of First-Year Experience and Student Retention.

“I chose a career in higher education because I passionately believe that educating women is the best way to effect change in a society,” Ivie says.

Staff members of the Women’s Success Center have shared stories of some of the students who earned their degrees even while facing various hardships and obstacles. They include both traditional students and some who have come back to school when they are older.

Rosie Peña is from Peru and was sent to work in the Canary Islands at a young age. She is reticent to speak about her early years, other than to say they were difficult. Peña came to Utah where she learned English. At UVU she planned to study nursing, but decided information systems would be her major.

She used tutors in every class for which they were available. She worked hard to gain an internship with the university’s web development department.

Although she doesn’t focus on her difficult past, she still remembers her roots, and sometimes expresses that connection through salsa dancing.

“I will never forget where I came from,” she says. “It was a very humble place. We can learn from every hard time the good things to take with us.”

Peña says what she has done is available to all.

“I know that anybody can do anything they put as a goal if they don’t focus on the past,” she says. 

Utah Women & Leadership Project

 UVU undertook the goal to help women facing challenges succeed with the Women & Education Initiative, which began in 2009, and the Utah Women & Leadership Project, which officially started in 2013. 

“We started with a one-year goal to release four research and policy briefs,” says Susan Madsen, the project’s director. She had been asked numerous times how Utah compared with the nation regarding women in fields including politics, non-profits, education, and business.

After the research in those areas, the group enlarged its focus to include events and resources, followed by additional research. Their efforts now reach beyond UVU and its students, offering help and encouragement to women in the area, state, nation, and even around the world.

“We are leading social change,” Madsen says. “The research has been the foundation to help people understand where we are currently, why things need to change, and how they need to change.”

And changing they are — for instance, Provo residents elected Michelle Kaufusi, the city’s first woman mayor, in November.          

“It is working,” Madsen says. “Things move slowly, but they are starting to change.”

That change started in part by the workshops and events the UWLP put on for students and the public. Topics include how various groups of women can strengthen their impact, understanding and appreciating anger, creating and growing small businesses, how to write for the popular press, why men should care about strengthening women, confidence, body image, communication, toxic perfectionism, running for political office, and professional interactions.

The events have been popular, with local attendance at each nearing 1,000. Attendees come from throughout the region. In addition, many events are streamed live and watched by people around the world, encouraging them to create their own similar events to help women in their locales.

Madsen has presented at the State Department and American Association of University Women and advised other national groups. She has spoken in India, Greece, Croatia, Belgium, South Africa, Austria, Argentina, Spain, Slovenia, and at a conference at the House of Commons in England.

“Good things are happening,” Madsen says. “We are the hub of research. We help people and organizations get the resources they need so they design their own programs, resources, and events. For example, we support and provide research and resources for women’s groups, networks, and organizations throughout the state.”

It takes passion and planning to find time for UWLP in addition to her regular duties in UVU’s Woodbury School of Business, but Madsen says she feels it is almost like a calling. UVU provides one staff member and other part-time employees, and researchers are funded by grants and donations.

Despite being an advocate for women to become leaders, Madsen doesn’t often call herself a feminist within Utah because of the negative connotation with some in the state. However, she says she is a feminist because she believes in the basics of feminism, that women and men should be treated and respected as equals and that there should not be discrimination based on gender.

“I believe men and women need to work together,” she says. “We should bring them together and everyone should have support. I don’t spend my time complaining about or attacking men. I work to help men understand how organizations can benefit when men and women work together, combining their talents into one to make a better future.”

Janae Moss is one who has been influenced by the UWLP. She and her husband, John, started a business and acquired several other related businesses, expanding their reach. Moss is the founder of the Parent Advocacy Council, a non-profit group, and is on the board of directors of the United Way of Utah County. The couple has six daughters and a son. Life is busy.

Moss has the experience and the personal knowledge to be a leader. Yet she has found it desirable to have the education to go with her other skills. Contact with Madsen prompted Moss to come back to UVU to complete her education. Moss had been attending a three-month leadership development program from the UWLP.

“She started challenging different women to find different ways to be involved,” Moss says of Madsen. “I was busy, but I felt like it was a tap on the shoulder. We see strength in other people and challenge them, let them know what we see in them. We freely share the beauty we see in others.”

Moss shares her philosophy of bringing harmony into her life to help determine what she needs to do on a particular day. She says she would encourage women to do the same, because they are worth it.

“It is worth it for you to learn a little bit every day,” she says. “Take time to do whatever you feel you really need. Surround yourself with people and keep in touch with those who cheer for each other.”

“It’s not ‘either/or,’ it’s ‘and,’ ” Madsen says. “You can be a mom and finish college. It’s an integration of different parts of our lives.”