• A young mother trying to cope with postpartum depression
  • A new graduate talking through job and life changes with a mentor
  • A student gaining leadership skills

From different avenues and with varying degrees of purpose, these women found solace and guidance at Grand Valley's Women's Center. They are examples that the center, located in a Kirkhof Center office suite, is meeting its mission of "supporting current and future successes" of women students.

The center will celebrate its fourth anniversary in August. Staff members involved in its initial planning said it has fulfilled their early expectations. "We had a pretty big vision when we started," said director Marlene Kowalski-Braun. "We started in the Dean of Students Office. [Assistant director] Jo Ann [Wassenaar] was working in a closet and I had a small office. But our minds were much bigger than our space; we wanted to impact not only campus, but the larger community."

It was a lofty goal, but one that has been successfully accomplished. From sponsoring campus programs to building community partnerships to spreading encouraging words, the center's staff members have touched the lives of countless students. Here are just three examples.

"They gave me room to be myself"

Quiana Broden was the first in her family of nine siblings to go to college. She learned about Grand Valley by participating in an Upward Bound program at Grand Rapids' Central High School. The federally funded Upward Bound helps prepare low-income or first-generation college-bound high school students for success in college.

    "I thought that I always wanted to be a social worker because they helped my family so much," she said.

Her studies and plan to work as a resident assistant were delayed slightly when Broden got pregnant during her junior year.

"It seemed such a stereotype: a not married, black woman," she said. "But I knew I just had to keep going. I wanted to stop trying, then I thought, "You're not going to be the first pregnant woman at school, and you won't be the last."

Her attitude helped motivate Broden to take summer classes. Things were going well, she said, until her last month of pregnancy when her blood pressure spiked; her doctor diagnosed her with preeclampsia and ordered bedrest. Assariyah was born one month early but arrived healthy. Broden said she knew how to care for a baby -- and did that well -- but kept waiting to fully bond with her daughter.

"It was a life-changing experience. People say you love your baby at first sight, but -- she and I -- we didn't know each other. It took time," she said. "I went through a mild postpartum depression. My doctor wanted me to take pills but I'm not a pill taker."

Broden returned to campus and was trying to juggle motherhood and classes when Kowalski-Braun urged her to attend a mothers' support group sponsored by the Women's Center.

"I started going to meetings and started going into the Women's Center. On my worst day, I felt that the atmosphere there was so welcoming. They gave me room to be myself," she said.

Broden met other student-parents through the support group and said their stories and advice were extremely helpful.

"They made me feel like I could do stuff as a mom. I found out some students lived on campus with many kids, and I thought, 'I can do this with one kid,'" she said. She even brought Assariyah to classes for a few weeks before finding permanent child care. They live in a small Grand Rapids apartment, and Broden said she and her 2-year-old daughter are "having the best time."

"We dance around the living room in our T-shirts every day," she said. Broden graduated in April with a sociology degree. She sits on the Women's Center Advisory Board.

"It's as simple as someone reaching out"

Faith Humphrey said she had "maxed out" her student loans, was running out of money and nearing the end of her rope. She had two classes left to take before graduating, but had no idea how to pay for them.

She placed her hopes on a scholarship for non-traditional students offered by the Women's Center.

"Part of the application included an essay," she said. "I wrote about how I grew up in poverty and was paying for college alone. And how I had surpassed obstacles in my life to get to that point.

"It was my first time reaching out."

It worked. Humphrey, now 25, received the scholarship, finished her classes and graduated in 2003 with an English degree. "I didn't think I would get it. When you think of non-traditional women, you think of single moms. I'm glad they didn't judge me on age, but on the entire package," she said.

The scholarship required regular meetings with a mentor; Humphrey was paired with LeaAnn Tibbe, Student Life special events coordinator, but busy schedules kept the two from talking until Humphrey neared graduation.

"We finally connected, and we talked for a couple of hours," she said. "We still keep in contact."

Humphrey welcomed a friendly voice last winter when she quit her job and started searching for another. "It was nice to talk with LeaAnn.  She has given me advice about job searches," she said.

Humphrey called herself an avid feminist but said the scholarship helped her see, and appreciate, the Women's Center in another light.

"I wouldn't have graduated from college if I didn't have that scholarship," she said.

"Sometimes it's as simple as someone reaching out, having a hand to hold."

"Tonight, people's lives are going to change"

Adrienne Trier began volunteering at the Women's Center when it opened. Four years later, the senior from Scottville was in charge of training 200 volunteers for community service.

As volunteer coordinator for the Women's Issues Volunteer Corps, Trier met, trained then matched student and faculty volunteers with organizations like Girl Scouts, YWCA and the Women's Resource Center in Grand Rapids. Trier said when the Women's Center established the WIVC three years ago, about 50 people signed up. That number increased to 200 last semester.

It was through the WIVC that Trier said she could see the impact the Women's Center had on campus life.

"I used to get all kinds of students who wanted to volunteer. It wasn't just feminists who were coming in. I got so many different volunteers whose experiences and beliefs ran the gamut," she said.

     While Trier had been involved in other Women's Center programs like Eyes Wide Open and the Clothesline Project, which address sexual assault and domestic violence, respectively, her involvement in the Vagina Monologues was closest to her heart. She served as director, production coordinator and adviser in three productions of the  Vagina Monologues.

Since 2002, the center has produced Eve Ensler's play to sellout crowds. The production, often with a cast of 40 or 50, serves as a fundraiser for area women's programs; more than $10,000 has been raised each year.

"It's so empowering for both the actresses and audience," she said. "When I was the coordinator, someone gave me a card last year that said, 'Tonight, people's lives are going to change.' And that was really awe-inspiring to think about."

After earning a bachelor's degree from Grand Valley, Trier will pursue a doctoral degree in sociology with an emphasis in gender studies at Virginia Tech this fall.

"They're willing to push the envelope"

The challenges of running a successful organization are maintaining its quality and surpassing already high expectations. And for the Women's Center, with its small staff and programming budget, the key is continuing to seek partnerships.

The center has two administrators, a clerical staff member and a loyal core of graduate and undergraduate student workers, some who volunteer to work outside their paid hours. Its programming budget is $30,000.

"It's really a balance," Kowalski-Braun said. "We don't want to stop growing, especially when we're in the midst of so much possibility, but there are limitations and we are having to recognize those."

Most of the center's programming, from bringing national speakers to Grand Valley to hosting workshops, is funded with help from campus and community partners.

"Nearly everything we do has a co-curricular connection,"  Kowalski-Braun said. "And for us, as part of Student Affairs,  it's important to keep this as part of a student's learning  experience. It doesn't mean much to a student if they can't tie it back to their class work."

The center's staff has also built partnerships with area  organizations like the YWCA, Center for Women in Transition and the Nokomis  Foundation, which recently gave it a two-year, $50,000 grant for programming.

DeDe Esque, Nokomis Foundation manager of operations and grant making, said the Women's Center plays a vital role in the community.

"My sense is that they're willing to push the envelope, and that's a valid and important role to take in this community," Esque said. "An academic institution should be challenging to students and faculty and present different sides. The 'Vagina Monologues' is a great example; other than a few community theater groups, I don't think anyone in this area would have put it on. It's very courageous of them."

Kowalski-Braun and Wassenaar said they've built the center's programming and services to a seemingly fever pitch -- during one week in March the center hosted four different events -- because they want to reach as many students as possible.

"When we plan our calendar, we make a point of keeping our annual programs that focus on student concerns like eating disorders, sexual assault and depression among women," Wassenaar said. "We like to think that we're having an impact and when students leave, they remember something that they learned here. We have student workers who are now in the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps. Hopefully, we were a piece of what motivated them."

The students in these examples found motivation in different aspects of the Women's Center's mission: supporting current and future successes by giving room for individual growth, offering a helping hand and changing lives.

Page last modified March 17, 2014