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Women Inspire Lets Georgia State Visionaries Shine on a Bigger Stage

 

Georgia State has received great acclaim for its racial, ethnic and gender diversity in recent years, but the campus also boasts great diversity of interests, ideas and expertise. All of those types of diversity are showcased in the Women Inspire speakers’ series, which begins its second season Tuesday, Sept. 22 — and, as organizers have found, they’re present in the audience, too.

“The audiences are a great blend, a sort of mosaic of who our university community is,” says Laura Voisinet, Georgia State’s first lady and board chair of the Women’s Philanthropy Initiative (WPI), which is co-sponsoring the series with the Office of the Provost. “There are fellow female and male faculty in the audience, there are deans and their respective board members, plus student leaders — you look around the room and you see this excitement about a timely topic of conversation among groups that may not have frequent opportunities to get together.”

Not only are the presentations great opportunities for audience members to learn about fields with which they’re unfamiliar, Voisinet says, it’s a chance for female thought leaders in the university community to bring their expertise to entirely new groups of people. “It is a great opportunity, and maybe even a little bit of a challenge, for them to take their areas of interest and make them accessible to this very diverse audience.”

A New Outlet for ‘Lifelong Learners’

In creating the Women’s Philanthropy Initiative two years ago, the founding members hoped to inspire female leaders to share their talents and resources with Georgia State, building stronger bonds between the Georgia State community and the Atlanta community as a whole. “We spent a lot of great time with our alumnae and with our faculty on campus,” Voisinet says. “And as we were sharing with each one of them, we realized that they were pretty much unaware of what the other one was doing. So there was this great, untapped possibility for making connections.”

Those female alumnae, community friends and potential donors, she explains, are “very engaged, curious, lifelong learners who are genuinely interested in what’s going on at the university” — and not only in high-profile efforts such as athletics or campus expansion, she adds, but in the ideas coming to life in individual classrooms and labs. By giving a platform to the people responsible for those discoveries, WPI supporters — and Georgia State stakeholders across the community — could get a firsthand look at what support for the university is helping to create.

For each year’s series, a committee chooses the speakers based on nominations solicited from the entire university, but they don’t assign titles or topics. A member of University President Mark Becker’s communications staff serves as the liaison to the selected guests, and in one-on-one meetings, they discuss each speaker’s areas of passion and interest, zero in on a more specific topic, and figure out ways to tailor it to the eventual audience.

Taking on that kind of challenge — to make scholarly work accessible to the general public — is an essential role of university faculty, says political science professor Jennifer McCoy, one of last year’s featured speakers. Her presentation, “Bridging the Divide: Creating Dialogue Amidst Polarization and Conflict,” told the story of her experience working with the Carter Center on conflict mediation in places such as Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela.

“I believe that scholars need to be engaged in public life,” says McCoy, director of Georgia State’s Global Studies Institute. “So I believe in engaged scholarship, and I view myself as being a public scholar, which means being able to translate research into language that can be useful to policymakers, to journalists, and to the public at large. It can also mean engaging with the outside world to apply what we have learned through our research, and that’s what I have tried to do through the Carter Center, applying concepts that come from theories of conflict mediation and reconciliation — taking theoretical work out into the real world.”

McCoy’s presentation proved particularly timely, coming as it did amidst closed-door negotiations that resulted in the restoration of diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba. The first speaker of the new academic year, too, deals with subjects of current debate: Nicole Vincent, an associate professor in the Department of Philosophy, studies the ethics of cognitive enhancement treatments and the complicated relationship between mental capacity and legal responsibility.

“These are very succinct, concise presentations on topics of great interest,” Voisinet says. “They are subjects that are in our nation’s consciousness. And in a lot of ways, the series presents a phenomenal opportunity that faculty normally do not get.”

The Conversation is Growing, and Ongoing

Women Inspire isn’t meant to be a lecture series, either, but rather a forum. Each presentation is followed by a Q&A session where audience members can engage directly. As a result, the audiences have been growing steadily, including an increasing number of students — both male and female. Given the emphasis that both WPI and the university as a whole have placed on creating student opportunities, Voisinet says, that’s a particularly positive development.

“What sometimes happens — especially with our undergraduates, but even graduate students — is they get so involved in their own majors and their own programs that they may not have the chance for discoveries outside that area. Maybe they were fortunate enough as freshmen or sophomores to be expansive in their course selections for general requirements, but maybe not. So the students are getting a chance to hear from leading women whom they wouldn’t see otherwise, and to discover and engage in new ideas. And it is very energizing for them to see these other role models they may not necessarily have been exposed to before.”

As awareness of the WPI builds, members are continuing to promote Women Inspire in the hopes of further expanding the diversity of both the audiences and the guest speakers. While this year’s presenters are all Georgia State faculty members, the series has invited influential alumnae in the past, and Voisinet says the selection committee considers any member of the university community with an stellar résumé and an ability to inspire.

“This is an exciting platform that provides an avenue of discovery for starting and continuing conversations about relevant topics,” Voisinet states. “And on a personal level, I love the fact that it has been accessible to, and attractive to, a real diverse cross-section of the community. I think that has been key. We all learn from each other, and it is truly gratifying to showcase these unique, dynamic voices on our campus.”