I was asked to do an inspirational talk as part of a student leadership event at Sacramento City College. Below is the transcript and images from my talk…
Sac City Talks — April 2016
Stories from Fairchild’s Women’s Studies classes at Sacramento City College will highlight students who have surprised, challenged, and inspired the educator to imagine and hope for a different kind of future for women and girls–a future where women are valued for their ideas and voices.
When I was asked to do this talk, I immediately started worrying about what I would say. However, within a very short time my mind switched gears from worrying about what will I say, to worry about what will I wear? How will I look? What will I wear so that I don’t look fat? I don’t wear high heels and it seems like most women who I have seen on Ted talks wear high heels. It was interesting to witness this process in myself. You see I teach Women’s Studies courses, we study and deconstruct these cultural pressures that value the appearance of girls and women more their voices. Even though I teach this stuff, I too have internalized and have to actively resist these oppressive messages…
I love teaching Women’s Studies at Sac City College because I meet people who inspire me and give me hope for a different future—a future where women are valued for their abilities, their ideas, their voices.
I am going to share a few stories about my students, but first I would like to ask you to think about a woman in your life who inspires you—picture her, do you have her in your mind? Now hold her close while we talk…
Colleen’s Final “Essay”
I was expecting essays as I waited in my classroom for students to drop off their final take-home exams for my Global Women’s Studies class. Colleen arrived, not with an essay, but with a large three-panel collage that she had created in response to our final writing assignment. She had taken many of the concepts presented over the semester and artistically translated them into a complex and beautiful visual representation. Visual art does not meet the requirements for my course–this was not in the syllabus. Colleen was a returning student, coming back to community college in her 50s to complete a degree. I personally related to Colleen. I too am a returning student mustering up the courage to re-enter college at about the same age. As Colleen presented this piece of artwork to me, she shared, “I couldn’t say what I know in writing, but I knew that I could in art.”
Colleen’s art lives with me today and I discover and see new things in her piece all the time. I share it with each new Global Women’s Studies class on our first day. I say to students, “This is our syllabus. This is what we will be studying. Now, tell me what you see…”
Colleen surprised me and opened me up as a teacher to valuing artistic expression in my classes. She challenged me to think of literacy in are larger way and to understand that literacy can be expressed in art.
Every semester my Women’s Studies students are required to do an autobiographical essay. Thanks to Colleen, I suggested to students that I would be open to an artistic option.
Nancy responded by creating a poignant self-portrait where she claims a strong feminist identity and surrounds her image with positive words—a powerful statement because girls and women are so often criticized and diminished. Nancy also wrote a poem to accompany her self-portrait. In Nancy’s words, these pieces are “a culmination of learning to appreciate one’s abilities and flaws, while living in a world full of criticism, hierarchy and superficial ideals.”
Since I teach Women’s Studies and I went to college, for the first time, in the 1970s, my students tend to think that I was involved in the Women’s Movement. The truth is that feminism and the Women’s Movement were not on my radar at all…I was a community college student, like them, struggling to find enough money to stay in school and live on my own. I really only started learning about these issues 10 years ago when I decided to go back to school. In contrast, young students today are so articulate about social injustice and I am continually impressed with their knowledge and passion.
Lan’s Spoken Word Poem
Lan, an engineering student in my WS class, wrote a spoken word poem to express her views about social justice issues– as a woman in a male-dominated field, Lan had a lot to say about feminism. As a woman of color Lan had a lot to say about racism. Lan was chosen to be a speaker at a celebration for students in STEM–she wrote her poem for this audience.
Lan was scared but determined, she predicted that some of her professors and peers would not welcome her creative social justice message—she was doing something outside the box calling out sexism, racism, classism, in a group of mathematicians and scientists.
She told me that “These words wouldn’t be able to come out of my mouth unless I had taken your class.” I was nervous for her, too. I attended the event to provide moral support and to witness this act of feminist courage! Lan performed with a fearless and passionate voice, and some allies in the audience cheered. My feminist glow was short-lived though–Lan later shared that, as she predicted, behind the scenes she received push-back from some in her academic community.
I didn’t think much about connections between Women’s Studies and STEM until students like Lan made that connection. I recently received an unexpected Facebook message from Allison, who had taken my class over two of years ago. This is what she said: “After learning in your class about the lack of women in STEM, I decided to try majoring in computer science. Well, now I’m in my third semester of computer programming courses and I love it! I tell everyone that I chose this path because of your class.”
She goes on to tell me that she is working with one of her professors to create a Women’s Section of the introductory course in programming “in hopes of bringing more women into the field and providing them an encouraging, women-friendly environment for that crucial first step in learning to program.” Allison, like Lan, made this connection!
While Allison chose an unexpected path because of my class, I too have chosen an unexpected path because of one of my students. Alexandra was a very quiet young woman who always sat in the back of my class. She had this quirky thing where she would come up after class and ask me to address cards and letters that she was sending to friends—I do a lot of writing on the board and she liked my handwriting!
To my surprise, Alexandra stayed in touch with me after leaving Sac City. She worked to save money to fulfill her dream of returning to school for International Studies. Now and then I was surprised with post cards or a note from her travels. When Alexandra asked me for help editing a personal statement for a university application I learned that she had lost her mother as a young girl and was raised by her grandmother. I also learned that she had recently lost her beloved grandmother—she was truly on her own. The title of her essay was “Fear is a Liar” and she described a moment of insight as she is flying home alone from Rome, the image of the Colosseum in her thoughts, and she sees fear for what it is—fear tells us that we can’t do something, makes us doubt ourselves. Makes us think about what to wear instead of what to say.
Alexandra is now studying in Rome. She has inspired me to imagine a bigger world for myself—I have been accepted into a Global Women’s Studies PhD program at the National University of Ireland in Galway. I am a returning student, yet again. An international student, thanks to Alexandra! When I sink into fear about traveling so far away and studying with people I don’t know, I think of Alexandra and tell myself, “Fear is a Liar.”
Sac City Talks Bio…
Sheryl Fairchild is Adjunct Professor of Women and Gender Studies at Sacramento City College, serving students for the past four years. Sheryl has a special interest in women who return to college based on her own experience of going back to school after a twenty-five year absence. She earned her MA in Women and Gender Studies from San Francisco State in 2008, and returned to earn a second MA in English Composition in 2013. Returning to school yet again, Sheryl has just been accepted as an international PhD student in the Global Women’s Studies Program at National University of Ireland Galway. She is committed to feminism and social justice, and is passionate about empowering her students.