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Investing in Women

Investing in Women

By Susan Vogel

Women’s Resource Center at a Glance

  • Union Building Rm. 411, phone (801) 581-8030;
  • Three full-time and two part-time staff
  • Budget of $14,000 after salaries
  • Current support groups on body image, women of color, GLBT issues, and women’s voices
  • In 2008, provided 700 hours of counseling, distributed $160,000 in scholarships to 50 female and three male students, sponsored 16 female and three male students through alternative admission, and gave $7,000 in emergency grants
  • Through Go Girlz, familiarizes junior and senior high school girls with U of U; nine former participants are now in college
  • Partners with Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault and the Rape Recovery Center
  • Works with the Greek Council and the Housing Office to provide education on healthy relationships and rape prevention
  • Co-sponsors annual Women’s Week with the Office of Diversity

Carla Suarez didn’t plan on attending college. Though she was good at math, no one had recognized her aptitude, and as a Latina from a struggling single-parent household on Salt Lake’s west side, she didn’t feel she had much in common with her classmates at the east-side high school to which she had transferred in hopes of getting a better education.

For Christine Paongo, the idea of transferring from Salt Lake Community College to the University of Utah was frightening. She couldn’t afford it and was unsure about negotiating the large campus. And, as a woman of color and a 32-year-old single mother of four, she wasn’t sure she’d fit in.

Both turned for help to the Women’s Resource Center (WRC) at the University of Utah.

For nearly four decades, the WRC has supported women students at the University through scholarships, education, counseling, and advocacy. Founded in 1972—notably, the year the Equal Rights Amendment passed Congress (though, in the end, it wasn’t ratified by 20 states, including Utah, and thus is not part of the Constitution)—the center was intended mainly to support women returning to school. Over the years, it has come to provide support to all women students, including the “re-entry women” it first served, working women, single mothers, women of color, and first-generation college students.


From 1970 to 2006, the enrollment of women on college campuses nationwide increased 178 percent. Women now make up the majority (57 percent) of undergraduates in the U.S. So why does the U of U still need a women’s resource center?

Because in Utah, women still lag behind. In 2008, only 44.6 percent of U of U undergraduates and 44.4 percent of graduate students were female. The picture is worse for women of color. While females of color make up approximately 10 percent of Utah’s school-age population and 26 percent of Salt Lake City high school students, they constitute only 6.5 percent of U of U undergraduates.

Debra Daniels MSW’84, director of the WRC since 2003, attributes this to girls not being supported emotionally in their ambitions to attend college and not having the means to pay. “They drop out when they feel their personal or financial problems are insurmountable,” says Daniels. Under her leadership, the WRC is hoping to increase the enrollment and retention of women at the U of U through outreach, support, and financial assistance.


Carla Suarez

Carla Suarez

When Daniels, an African American, entered Utah State University in Logan as a freshman, she might have had the same fears as Paongo of not fitting in. Not so. “There was not a thought that I didn’t belong there,” she says. That’s because Daniels had already been there for three years, participating in Upward Bound, which places high school students on college campuses each summer. “Once we were in college, they created a nurturing space for us and kept tabs on our grades and progress,” she notes.

Inspired by her Upward Bound experience, Daniels, along with WRC Assistant Director Kimberly Hall, developed the Go Girlz Initiative, which targets girls in middle school—primarily minority, economically disadvantaged, and first-generation students—and brings them to campus so they become familiar with the U of U.

Carla Suarez wishes she had been involved in such a program. It was only when her high school math teacher noticed her aptitude and signed her up for a mentoring program that she started thinking seriously about college.

Suarez believes first-generation college students are at a disadvantage because they don’t have the support system of family members who went to college. “There is a myth that everyone who is successful did it on their own, pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, but that isn’t true,” she says. Having family members who can talk about their college experiences and explain things like the ACT creates a real advantage, Suarez says.


Christine Paongo

Christine Paongo

When Paongo entered the U of U engineering program two years ago, she was one of just five women there and the only woman of color. “I kind of felt like a stranger intruding. It was hard to establish a relationship with the class. I felt alone,” she says.

Paongo began spending time at the WRC. When she learned of the Women of Color support group, she was apprehensive. “I thought support groups were for losers,” she says. “Now I can’t imagine being successful without it.” The group “opened my eyes and taught me that as a woman of color I can be myself,” she says. “It made me really appreciate that I was a woman of color. It made me comfortable and gave me the strength to keep going.”

Paongo now looks forward to her Tuesday night group. “It rejuvenates me,” she says.

Besides support groups open to the community, the WRC offers counseling for students, staff, and faculty designed to support women’s well-being and success at the University. Many traditional counseling programs tend to identify a client’s distress as a sign of pathology, according to Kristy Bartley MS’93 PhD’00, counseling coordinator, and Donna Hawxhurst, Ph.D., training coordinator. Counseling at the WRC explores broad contextual issues that are likely contributing to a client’s distress, asking the question, “What’s wrong with this picture?” The client is seen as the expert in her life who can best choose the areas she wants to work on and change. This approach, says Hawxhurst, works well with both women and men no matter their backgrounds and experiences.

For Suarez, this meant that when she was considering leaving school to support her family after her mother, a certified nursing assistant, lost her job, she was able to talk with Daniels without feeling judged. “Debra was very calm,” she says. “It wasn’t like ‘I have problems and she is counseling me.’ She listened and gave me guidance when it was necessary. But she was there as an advocate. I knew she wasn’t judging, and I knew she understood.”

The WRC has the only feminist multicultural counseling training program in the country, founded in 1994 by Hawxhurst and Liza Davis, former counseling coordinator. Each year, the program accepts up to four advanced graduate students in counseling, psychology, or social work for an internship or practicum that requires a minimum of 20 hours per week.

Prior to beginning, all trainees complete 40 hours of instruction in sexual assault response and advocacy as well as a course in Feminist Multicultural Psychotherapy. Trainees see individual clients, co-facilitate support groups, and become involved in campus and community social justice initiatives.

Bartley says that the counseling at the WRC often involves issues of violence against women, anxiety, depression, and relationships—issues that have not changed much over the past 40-some years. “Women still struggle to balance education, career, and family,” says Bartley. Two topics that currently surface often are racism and homophobia. “We have created a safe place here to discuss these topics,” she says.


Confronting Challenges: Why the WRC Still Matters

  • Utah has a lower crime rate than most states in every crime except one: rape. It has the highest rate of rape of women in the Continental U.S. (National Violence Against Women Prevention Research Center, 2004)
  • In Utah, one in eight women will be raped in her lifetime, 90 percent before her 18th birthday. (Utah Commission for Criminal and Juvenile Justice, 2006)
  • When rapes occur on college campuses nationwide, the victims are usually young women between ages 18 and 24 and the perpetrators men. Of the women, 84 percent know the perpetrator; 57 percent are on a date with him. In 75 percent of the rapes, the male is under the influence of alcohol, and in 50 percent of rapes the female is. (Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault)
  • One year after receiving degrees, women working full time already earn 20 percent less than men. A decade after graduation, women earn 30 percent less than men. (American Association of University Women, 2008)

Investing in women is investing in families and in our communities, says Daniels.

Paongo, now a junior in chemical engineering, looks forward to graduating and getting a job that will provide a good future for her children.

Suarez, also a junior, is majoring in health promotion and education and minoring in chemistry. The WRC sponsored her University admission through the alternative admissions program, which allows offices to support students who do not meet traditional admission criteria. Yet she has succeeded, wonderfully well: She has been on the Dean’s List, is a part of the Honors College, and plans to apply to medical school.

Suarez is receiving a Michael Foundation Scholarship, designated for high-achieving women of an ethnic minority who face financial challenges and the pressure of being a first-generation college student. All five WRC scholarship recipients maintain a cumulative GPA of 3.5 or better and plan to pursue professional degrees.

Besides scholarships to help students enroll and stay in college, the WRC offers emergency grants. When Suarez’s mother lost her job, her family felt they had no one to turn to. Suarez shared her concerns with Hall, who offered emergency funds. “The money helped our family get ourselves back on our feet,” says Suarez. And it allowed her to stay in school.

“For some students, $300 or $400 can make the difference between staying in school or dropping out,” says Daniels.


Like other offices on campus, the WRC faces increasing challenges in light of overall university budget cuts and the economic downturn nationwide. It will be more difficult for students to afford college and to keep going once they begin. To meet these challenges, the WRC hopes to increase its fund-raising through the help of a community advisory board and to build its visibility in the community. Daniels wants to get the word out that the WRC exists and serves the needs of many students, not just women and not just those who consider themselves feminists.

She also wants students to know that someone cares. “If you can find a connection and a niche, it can help you not get discouraged when times get tough,” she says. “Please ask for help before you walk away from your education. Here you have a place to come if you need help figuring things out or even if you just need a quiet spot.”

—Susan Vogel is a freelance writer and publisher based in Salt Lake City.

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