Lehigh’s Women’s Center celebrates 25th anniversary

In a forward-looking celebration that focused on the ongoing evolution of Lehigh’s Women’s Center, a host of speakers underscored just how far it’s come.

Women’s Center Director Rita Jones welcomed the more than 150 who gathered in the Global Commons area of Williams Hall on Tuesday, March 29th, and thanked the attendees for their ongoing support of the center and its work. But the mid-day celebration was not about reflecting on the center’s past, she said.

“There’s still so much to do, and we need all of you to help us figure out what the next 25 years will look like,” she said.

Kathy Calabrese, the current director of Lehigh’s Child Care Center, recalled the early days of the Women’s Center, which grew out a commissioned study on women and minorities at Lehigh under former Lehigh President Peter Likins. Faculty, staff and student volunteers pitched in to help support the center, which was located in a remote corner of Johnson Hall and also functioned as a child care resource for working parents.

With creative programming on topics like sexual assault, AIDS and domestic violence, and a widening circle of support, the Women’s Center eventually became “a safe place for anyone to come and share and talk, and that’s what we wanted,” Calabrese said.

Further focus on the Center’s growth occurred during the tenure of former President Gregory Farrington, who commissioned another study that resulted in a structural reorganization that placed the Women’s Center under John Smeaton, vice provost of Student Affairs.  At that time, Smeaton identified key factors for its success: a full-time director, a highly visible location in the University Center, and a safe, supporting and welcoming environment.

“We didn’t want it to become the ‘victim’s center.’ We wanted it to have a positive focus,” Smeaton said.

Later reviews also led to the creation of a staff position dedicated to preventing sexual violence, and the creation of Lehigh’s Office of Gender Violence Education and Support, currently led by Brooke DeSipio.

Smeaton said he would be remiss if he didn’t acknowledge Jones’ “vision, energy and commitment,” as well as her ability to forge critical partnership through her active, visible and effective advocacy.”

Assistant Professor of Religion and Africana Studies Monica Miller also credited Jones with expanding her leadership role in the Women’s Center through her scholarly contributions to the interdisciplinary Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies program that Miller directs.

“It’s an incredible act of heavy lifting, and I honestly don’t know how she does it,” Miller said. “This is not, as others have said, a space for victims. It is a place where structural and social inequality can be examined, but it’s also the space where we are literally training the next generation of people doing the important work of difference and identity. Lehigh is so much better for the work all of you do on a daily basis.”

Students Katie MacLachlan ‘16, Makima Wilkinson ‘16 and Tanairy Ortiz ‘19 also spoke, offering personal perspectives on the role the Women’s Center played in their academic path, their personal evolution and in the creation of deep and trusting friendships.

Lehigh President John Simon praised Jones’ leadership, dedication to her work and significant contributions to improving campus climate. “Rita cares about diversity and inclusion broadly,” said Simon, who recalled a recent and uniquely compelling presentation Jones made to trustees on these issues.

Simon also read quotes from students who praised the Center’s engaging and provocative programming, dedicated and caring staff, and the evolution of a welcoming space that brings students from across the university together through common interests. He quoted one student who said, “It’s a place to feel at home on a campus that can sometimes feel isolating.”

Added Simon: “It’s obvious to me from this testimony that the Women’s Center impacts student lives in many positive ways. It’s clear that it will remain at the forefront of dialogue. So here’s to Rita’s leadership, and here’s to the next 25 years.”

The remarks by students, faculty and administrators were the highlight of a three-hour birthday celebration that took place in the Williams Hall Global Commons, the Mezzanine and the Greenhouse. On hand for the celebration were many of the “25 Women Who Are Changing Lehigh”, who were recognized in the weeks leading up to the event for their activism, engagement and academic contributions.


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