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Oct. 12, 2012
CONTACT: Gordon Ovenshine

The Women's Center turns 21

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - Until this fall, the Women's Center at Slippery Rock University occupied a corner office in the basement of Strain Behavioral Science Building. Now it is in the heart of campus, having relocated to a brightly decorated suite on the second floor of the Robert M. Smith Student Center.

The Women's Center will mark its 21st year with an open house from noon to 2 p.m. Oct. 18. Staff wants to raise awareness of its mission so that more SRU students and community residents utilize the office as a resource for education, quality-of-life and personal empowerment.

"We're not just here to address problems," said Jodi Solito, who became the first full-time director of the center in 2006. "We're here as a resource, and we want to get the word out that we have a lot of information here."

Solito said the center serves both genders. "We do not only serve women, although that certainly is our focus, but we also serve men," she said.

The new office includes a common room, three staff offices and a "quiet room" for breastfeeding and silent reflection.

"I love it here. It's more accessible to students and others, it's more visible and it's brighter," said Karla Fonner, assistant director. "There is a different kind of energy."

The mission of the Women's Center is to promote gender equality through education and to challenge existing barriers. The office offers a safe space where women and their allies can borrow books and videos, advocate for equality, socialize and even provide infant care. The center works to prevent sexual assault and offers help with issues associated with dating, online harassment, mutual respect and gender expression. It provides employment for seven students.

"We try to put women at the forefront, so we do things that are going to address concerns that are typically felt to a greater degree by women, such as equal pay for equal work, leadership and women's history," Solito said. "We are incorporating the importance of women and women's contributions to society into the campus culture."

At SRU, the shift in culture starts at the top. Cheryl Norton recently became the 16th and first woman president of the institution.

"I think it says a lot, it's our first female president," Solito said. "For me, what it says is that Slippery Rock University is part of the broadening approach to equality."

An SRU student lobbied for the creation of a women's center back in 1991 after she participated in a women's leadership program at the McKeever Environmental Learning Center in Sandy Lake, which SRU administers.

"We were one of the first institutions in the state system to have a women's center on campus. I think it did show a lot of forward thinking on the part of those who were involved in it," Solito said.

Solito and Jace Condravy, an SRU professor of English who was involved in the early years and served as director for a year, said the Women's Center has always focused on empowerment.

"Of course it was a monumental accomplishment to get it established on campus," Condravy said. "It still acknowledges the fact that even though women make up the majority of students and half the faculty, in many ways women are still part of a subculture."

There is much for the center to accomplish in terms of changing attitudes mainly because of social expectations society places on women, Solito said.

"If you come to campus on a Thursday night and just hang out, you'll see how the women are dressed compared to how the guys are dressed. The women will be dressed like they're going to a nightclub, the guys, just the opposite," Solito said. "But that is the social expectation we have placed on women."

Fonner said a baseline issue for many college women is balancing a healthy lifestyle with the desire to adhere to society's pressure regarding appearance.

"I think it's a balance between them wanting to be healthy versus the media bombardment of what 'pretty women' are supposed to look like," Fonner said. "You've got to be the very thin, frail woman that appears in a magazine, and that's not necessarily healthy. It's kind of like we've created a big ring in the in sky that no one can ever really reach, but we're all trying to get there."

Fonner said many young women feel the demand to live up to other peoples' expectations.

"What I see more of with the women I have interacted with on campus is that pressure to live up to someone's expectations," Fonner said. "That someone can be a parent, or it could be a partner, a coach or a professor. They're just constantly trying to achieve to the point where they get themselves over-involved. They're burning out. We went through the movement that said, 'You can have it all. You can do anything you want to do,' and somehow that got twisted into, 'You should be able to do everything perfectly.'

Fonner said her goals for the center are conceptual, such as promoting the concept of "sisterhood" and minimizing the "mean girls' syndrome of being cut throat. By challenging cultural stereotypes, the center promotes quality for everyone on campus, she said.

For me, it's about the whole idea of sisterhood, and also incorporating men into what we're doing," Fonner said. "Part of what we try to do is empower women now that they're on their own. How do you make the right choices?"

Dave Wolfe, a sport management major from Pittsburgh and Student Government Association president, said he is an active supporter of the center. He completed sexual assault victim training there, and said more men should get involved because so-called "women's issues" apply to men too.

"It's not women versus men when it comes to these issues," he said. "It's not a war. It is a joint effort, and we also need to realize that men go through these things too."

Slippery Rock University is Pennsylvania's premier public residential university. Slippery Rock University provides students with a comprehensive learning experience that intentionally combines academic instruction with enhanced educational and learning opportunities that make a positive difference in their lives.