WLC Member Spotlight
Mary Vascellaro ’74, P’07
In light of the Women's Leadership Conference: 120 Years of Women at Brown, how have women influenced Brown, and how has the University influenced women to date?
This was precisely the question that we asked as we started planning the celebration. The whole conference is really an exploration of the legacy of women here and the place of Brown women in the world. The history of women at Brown is a history of the search for equity. Princeton and Yale each celebrated 40 years of women at their institutions and women have been attending Brown three times as long.
In 1970 I enrolled at Pembroke College, and by the end of that year Brown's two undergraduate colleges, Pembroke College (for women) and The College (for men) were combined. It was a transformative time to be at Brown and was a significant change on campus for women. There’s a timeline that was created for the 100th anniversary which starts with Sarah Doyle’s birth in 1830. In 1891, under the leadership of President Andrews, women were first admitted into the Brown Women’s College. A lot of alumnae don’t know our history and I myself was surprised to find out that the name “Pembroke” wasn’t given to the Women’s College until 1928, after a male-led movement to separate women from Brown. Interestingly, Pembroke College was built entirely through fundraising efforts of women. Brown has rich archives of women’s history, and I’m really hoping to see those highlighted and exposed at the conference.
How has the role of women at Brown changed since you went to school here?
Alumnae have shared that, in their experience, Brown was really gender-neutral. They didn’t know it was any different to be a woman at Brown than to be a man. There were no shrinking violets! But once they graduated from Brown, they found that the real world was different. In terms of a monumental change, of course, everything coheres with President Simmons’ appointment in 2001 as the first African American Ivy League President who also happens to be a woman. It’s bittersweet that we’ll be saying goodbye to her at the conference. It’s a great opportunity, but it’s sad at the same time, and definitely something to focus on at the celebration.
As you are strongly involved with women at Brown and beyond, has there been a specific woman in your life that you look up to as a role model or mentor?
As I thought about this question, what I realized is that it’s not one woman who has been a mentor to me, but many. Those women are the Rhode Island Pembroke alumnae. They were the ones who gave me a scholarship to come to Brown and have been my role models.
My father died when I was 14 leaving my mother with a small pension and her income as a seamstress. I applied to Brown as a dream, knowing that other universities were more affordable. I still remember the day I visited campus and had my interview with those women at Pembroke. Without their generous support I would not have come here. They made my Brown dream come true. Today, my husband and I direct our philanthropy toward financial assistance for students for that reason. We try to emulate the generosity of an educational gift.
What does celebrating 120 Years of Women at Brown mean to you? How has the Women’s Leadership Council and the Pembroke Center helped shape the celebration?
The idea of a conference has always been discussed by the Women’s Leadership Council and the 120th anniversary of women at Brown was a good handle to hang this on. Since the Pembroke Center is also celebrating its 30th anniversary, it’s been a nice foundation to start the year which will culminate with the conference. We will be highlighting the Pembroke archives during the conference, which will really tie the two together and provide a fitting end.
For the past 20 years, I’ve had the opportunity to interact with women at Brown from all
generations. Through my work with the Pembroke Center I’ve even been able to interact a little with the academic side. I was one of the first members of the Women’s Leadership Council, and one of the reasons I joined was to see if their goals would be different from the Pembroke Center. Since I joined the Council, I’ve learned a lot about philanthropy. When women give to an organization, they give of their money and also of their time. They give to be able to help.
The Women’s Leadership Council’s mentoring program [The Women’s Launch Pad] provides women the ability to be actively involved with a student who needs a role model. It gives them a way to really help the University, but often they find that as a mentor they are learning as much as their mentee. Not many places offer an opportunity like that.
As far as what the celebration means to me, when I was accepted into Pembroke the schools [Brown and Pembroke] merged fully by the end of my first year, so gender was not really an issue that I experienced or saw. It wasn’t until I had a daughter that I became more introspective about what it means to be a woman in today’s world. Generations of women need to learn from each other. This is what the Pembroke Center and the Women’s Leadership Council have in common and will bring this concept to the conference.
Why is the conference and preserving the legacy of women at Brown important?
I think we forget how shaped we are by history. It’s about legacy more than past: both where we come from and the responsibilities that we have from that. Brown women have leadership positions throughout all industries and the conference is an opportunity to showcase our alumnae and be able to network, especially with our younger alums. We have designed panels around young alums to allow them to interact with older alums from different industries and hopefully this sharing of advice and ideas might resonate with them and lead to the exponential growth of future endeavors.
Women open up around other women differently than they do around men, and this is part of what we want to capture. I hosted a technology panel at my house with women from Google, Pixar, and other companies. At this gathering women spoke frankly about the real world and their jobs. This is the kind of experience that I hope will happen at the conference.
What can we expect to see at the conference in May? What part of the celebration are you most looking forward to?
This conference is a celebration of women and recognition of all that we have created here. An important aspect of the conference is to celebrate the achievements and wisdom that President Simmons has shared with Brown. People want a conference that will be both inspiring and life changing. We want people to leave the conference with a deeper knowledge of the history of women at Brown and an appreciation for what Brown women are doing in the world.
The conference is designed to be intergenerational. All of the panels will feature alumnae and we have a fabulous list of names to draw from! We will also have lectures by key faculty to provide alums with a unique opportunity to interact with the academic side of Brown. Everyone will get something different out of it. Attendees can expect to find topics that really focus on diverse aspects of life and career. One key area will be focused on lifestyle issues – balancing marriage, career, and children. We will also plan to feature Brown alumnae in the entertainment industry.
As for what I am looking forward to personally, I’m a history buff. I’m interested in seeing our archives come to life with a performance based on the collection of historical documents we have from women who attended Brown. Additionally, I think it is magical when women come together, especially from different generations. As a mentor talking to today’s generation of women, I see that women often don’t want to talk about life balance. Women today want to be able to do it all without thinking about the compromises that have to be made along the way. I think it will be interesting to hear from the different generations at the conference because I think we can learn from each other. I am looking forward to feeling the awesome collective energy.
Genine M. Fidler '77, P '04, P '12
You have been involved with the Women's Leadership Council since its inception, what has been a Council highlight for you? How do you see the Council continuing to evolve?
It is difficult to pinpoint just one highlight. Certainly, establishing and growing the Women's Launch Pad mentoring program is a major achievement and continues as a highlight for the Women's Leadership Council. I am also proud of the very successful effort we sponsored to raise new major gifts to the University for the Boldly Brown Campaign through a matching grant initiative. There are other very important highlights from our work over these first 6 years: I am thrilled with the creation and invigoration of relationships among Brown women to one another and to the University. Through the Council and our sponsored gatherings of Brown women across the country, we are tapping into a rich reserve of good will and passion for the University and each other that is both astounding and satisfying. It is this network of ties among Brown women and back to the University that I hope the Women's Leadership Council will continue to nourish and strengthen.
What does Philanthropy mean to you and what is it about Brown that motivates you to give back?
Philanthropy to me is the opportunity to give back to the people and places that have given so much to me. I believe in the Jewish value of Tikuun Olam, to repair and heal the world. For me, philanthropy is an important vehicle for me to try to live this value. My husband, Josh, and I are committed to making a difference and improving the world as best we can. Philanthropy is a part of this plan.
Brown has been a huge part of my family's life experience. I credit the growth, relationships and expanded vision I gained from my total Brown experience as one of the strongest influences in my life. This influence continues today, and not just because I met my husband at Brown. I believe Brown is an important force for the growth and development of people who will continue to be agents of change and improve our world. By giving back to Brown, I get to participate in that process.
Aside from your Women's Leadership Council involvement, what are some of your other passions at Brown?
In addition to the Women's Leadership Council, I am passionate about so many other things at Brown I could probably be there full time. I serve on the Creative Arts Advisory Board and am very excited about the new building and the opportunities to foster collaborative and interdisciplinary creativity. Josh and I are both big fans of all Brown Athletics including support for Brown teams (men's and women's) as well as intramural and athletic opportunities for all Brown students. We are passionate about improving the advising programs (including the Fidler Fund for Advising) and opportunities at the University and applaud the recent changes and new programs in this area. I also serve on the board of Brown|RISD Hillel and think they are doing a wonderful job enriching the spiritual and religious fabric of life at Brown.
What's your favorite Brown memory and as a Brown alumna and parent, do you see a difference in the college experience of your daughters as compared to your own?
Of course my favorite memory at Brown has to be the night Josh asked me out for the first time. I remember it like it was yesterday.
The biggest difference in my daughters' experiences at Brown from my own has to be in their much richer engagement both intellectually and personally with their professors. Aside from this, the essential Brown experience feels remarkably "ever true".
Susan Pilch Friedman '77, P'08
Since you provided the initial foresight for the Women's Leadership Council, have you been pleased with its progress to date? How do you see the Council continuing to evolve?
I am thrilled with the progress of the Brown Women's Leadership Council to date. The Council was started as a germ of an idea seven years ago by a small group of women who came together without funding and without an official Corporation mandate. President Ruth Simmons believed in the idea and encouraged and supported us to make something happen. At this point the success of the Women's Leadership Council has snowballed into something much larger than I ever envisioned. More and more women want to join and there is an increase in Brown senior undergraduates who want to be a part of the Women's Leadership Council mentoring program. Someday I hope that we will be in a position to provide mentors to all senior undergrads. The Brown Women's Leadership Council now plays an important role within the Brown community and my hope is that it will continue to grow and evolve to have an even bigger presence.
What does Philanthropy mean to you?
Philanthropy is about giving back in any capacity you can. It is investing in the future as well as enhancing our current world. I get a tremendous amount of satisfaction when I walk into The Friedman Study Center and see so many Brown students taking full advantage of the facilities and the environment. Its a far cry from when I went to the Sci Li 35 years ago.
What are some of your other passions at Brown?
There are so many great things going on at Brown but nothing compares to my passion for The Brown Women's Leadership Council. It has reunited me with many of my Brown classmates with whom I had lost touch with through the decades. It has been a wonderful vehicle for me to engage with not only Brown friends of my generation but those of future generations, as well as my daughter's friends in the Brown class of 2008.
Has there been a specific woman in your life that you look up to – as a role model or mentor?
Like many women of my generation, I didn't have a role model or mentor. We were the generation that was told we could have it all- education, career, marriage, children, friendships, and more. I would have benefitted tremendously from a female mentor. That's exactly why I'm so proud of the Women's Leadership Council's Launch Pad mentoring program and what it has accomplished through matching Brown senior women with Brown female alumnae. These connections have proven to be invaluable for both groups of women.