ROCKET: What is your response to the celebration for the 100 years of women?
Samyuktha Mahadevan: I honestly think that it is a wonderful milestone to celebrate. And I really appreciate the effort that has been put in by students to acknowledge that 100 years of women is 100 years of white women. In fact, I’ve had more people than not address the fact that this celebration is limited in its application to many of the women currently on our campus. That being said, I think it is necessary to find joy in the steps that our institution has taken to become slowly more inclusive, however limited those steps may have been in their scope. I am a pretty optimistic person, and I like to think that even of 100 years of women as at the very least laying the foundation for a person like me to come here.
R: What still needs to change in the way William & Mary prioritizes/supports women, especially WOC?
SM: That’s a big question! I think there are two classes of ways that William & Mary can prioritize supporting women (I’m putting those two together): One is to just provide the basic things that women on this campus need which are often overlooked. For example, I’m really happy with the steps SA, HOPE, and Vox have been taking to make menstrual products freely available for students across campus. Those kinds of initiatives mean a lot, because they address the invisible obstacles many women face that are overlooked. Another given is the availability of products for women with diverse features; one thing off the top of my head is that it would be great if the Student Exchange and the other on-campus markets offered products for natural hair. That’s something that a majority of people on this campus, myself included, don’t have to think about because it’s always catered for. Little things like that mean a lot in terms of thoughtfulness, and it shows the depth to which the College can truly care about providing necessities for its students. The second class is to more systematically acknowledge that a lot of our academics are imbalanced in terms of both gender and race. As someone in the Government/International Relations sphere, I’ve been making a point to address that our classes are not as truly diverse as our professors would like to think. While I understand that students are responsible for choosing their academic paths, I do think that the reason why women, and women of color in particular, avoid or overlook certain fields is because they aren’t represented within the College, let alone the professional world. I know some departments are actively trying to diversify their faculty, but it’s not a one-and-done process. I also think that academic departments should do more to encourage diverse students to look into their fields, whether that’s by creating more spaces and events to do so, or expanding their interests so they can share something in common with their students.
R: What are some things you do on campus that you think make the environment a more inclusive one?
SM: It sounds kind of sad to say this, but sometimes it feels like just being involved in *things* as a woman of color on this campus is opening the door to more inclusivity. I’ve been an OA for three years, and the difference between the experience from a pure representation perspective was pretty stark. I know when I was a brown freshman not involved in Fraternity/Sorority life, I didn’t think that I couldn’t be an OA, but having learned what the problems were in previous years, I was glad I applied consistently, because it became bigger than something I wanted to do. It became almost necessary to ensure that the number of “non-traditional” OAs increased. I’m writing my senior thesis, and in my weekly meetings with 15 other Gov/IR majors, there are 11 white men and 5 women (2 are WOC). It still feels like work in progress, and honestly, I can’t tell if it’s “inclusive”. In my day-to-day activities, though, I think that the thing I do best on campus to try and make the environment more inclusive is to encourage everyone I meet to do, or at least try, whatever they are interested in. I interact with a lot of freshmen, and my favorite thing to do is ask them what they’re interested in and point them in the direction of people I think would be great resources for them. Another thing I like to do is promote people who play roles in organizations/fields in which they are representing the underrepresented. Like I mentioned earlier, I think it makes it easier for people to feel more included if they know it is possible to succeed and operate outside of the lens of a minority.
R: Who is someone on campus you look up to, and why? What do they do that you think deserves commending?
SM: I know it seems ironic to mention a white male professor in this section, but I look up to Drew Stelljes a lot. He is one of the only professors I know who has been willing to have uncomfortable conversations and who embraces vulnerability rather than trying to assuage it. I’ve been able to talk about my feelings about being a leader on campus and trying to forge my own path without focusing on the fact that I’m a minority. I also admire that he has a lot of fun in his role and is able to bring out the sillier side of students, which I love because it’s hard to be serious all the time (shout-out to Cotton Candy Mondays). He lives for bringing out students’ inner dreams, and it is an ideal I try to embody in my interactions with new friends.
I look up to a lot of women on this campus too; I’ve been telling my mom that this semester has been highlighted by the number of absolutely fabulous women I’ve met and become better friends with. I learn something new from them every time we meet, and they bring so much positive energy and inspiration to my life. I think that there is a growing affirmation culture (particularly for women), and I am all for it! I love that more and more, we find community in sharing the little successes we have. I love that we are able to uplift each other by acknowledging the amazing things, however small, that we accomplish and strive for every day.