By Rebekah Schroeder
As College experiences remain mostly remote, Diamond Urey’s freshman year was nothing like she expected. Involved in various extracurricular activities since high school, she found a new community where students inspired each other, filling the freshman history student with warmth that could break through any virtual walls.
“It’s like a sisterhood,” said Urey, a dual major in history and women’s, gender and sexuality studies. “It’s getting to know a lot of people, getting to grow with them, [and] getting to know yourself.”
Women in Learning and Leadership (WILL), has decided to expand their membership to encompass more students than ever, allowing those who join to tackle the topic of gender while forming meaningful bonds with others through community events. People of all identities and majors are encouraged to attend meetings, whether as those who identify with the core principles or those who want to engage as allies.
As the spring semester begins, WILL has welcomed a slew of fresh faces, and established a new precedent — students could take part in the organization as interested parties looking to explore social issues, rather than members bearing specific responsibilities for engagement.
In the past, the program required that its members take on a WILL minor to gain entrance into the College’s organization. Lakshmi Gurram, the executive chair, is adamant on bringing others into the picture who can engage in the group’s activities beyond just satisfying the original conditions.
Gurram said that WILL has decided to set up a two-tiered membership system between general body members and the preexisting academic program members. The separation is a comprehensive way to include students far beyond those enrolled in majors focused on gender and sexuality.
“In the Fall 2020 semester, we made amendments to our constitution delineating general body membership, where a student can be a part of WILL mission-related efforts without having to complete the minor and bear additional requirements than an academic program member would have to fulfill,” Gurram, a sophomore biology major, said.
This expands the reach of the events for everyone, helping connect members across campus with mentors, friends and other individuals who aspire to uplift their fellow attendees. Permitted that as long as those who join make it to five out of six meetings, join an internal committee chaired by an executive board member and attend three gender events, they can actively engage in all that WILL has to offer.
The drastic change is one that aims to unite the virtual student body despite the challenges of a remote setting. Erika Heinrich, the membership co-chair and a sophomore dual major in marketing and women’s, gender and sexuality studies, wants to bridge the gap between members through coordinating a number of bonding activities.
“This semester, we’re really excited to just open the doors for as many voices as we can,” she said. “We’re all about standing up and sharing our points of views, trying to come up with a transectional way to solve problems and [have] a way to meet everybody.”
The organization wants to portray a myriad of women’s experiences, highlighting everyone’s individual strengths and talents.
“All of the efforts and hard work that the past executive boards have put into making this possible has led us to this moment and we feel responsible as the new executive board to uphold those values and take the opportunity to reaffirm our commitment to inclusive excellence,” Gurram said.
When Heinrich first came to the College and received the email that informed her of WILL’s existence on campus, she had no clue that such an organization tailored to discussing women’s places in the world.
“Even when I was a freshman, they gave me the tools to make it possible,” she said. “I think they provided a lot of leadership experience for me from the beginning of my college career, which I would never have had without it.”
Women in Learning and Leadership has events planned for the rest of the semester, with the calendar dictating everything to be online. If allowed to by the College, they aim to have in-person hangout dates scheduled sometime in March. Take Back the Night, which highlights survivors’ stories and points of view, is on April 23 at 8 p.m. over a Zoom webinar.
The day before Valentine’s Day, there is a celebration of friendship for “Galentine’s Day,” alongside other events like Black History Month Intersectionality and Footwear February, a community service effort that raises money through showing off socks, shoes, slippers, etc. to others. Partnered with HomeFront NJ, a group that helps combat homelessness, the fundraiser will be on Feb. 28.
Alongside Women’s Empowerment Week, there are various co-sponsorships with the Anti-Violence Initiatives and PRISM, the LGBTQIA+ coalition on campus, all aspiring to unite programs at the College.
“We’re planning on doing a ‘Redefining Sex Week’ this semester,” Heinrich said. “And that is just a week of events that tackles any myths or opens a conversation about sexuality and things like that, so we’re really excited.”
With features such as sex trivia, guest speakers, and a performance of The Vagina Monologues, the week will be full from March 15 to 18. For more information, @will_tcnj on Instagram will be continually updated with new information on upcoming events.
Urey, alongside her co-chair Noelle Halikman, are the team behind Take Back the Night. To show their dedication, they contacted the official organization behind the movement, and speakers from the foundation will be speaking at the College.
“Of course, it’s going to be difficult because we’re online and it’s mine and the co-chair’s first time [planning.] So everything’s new. It’s just very difficult to just navigate everything, but we’re trying our best,” she said. “I’m really excited for that.”