Last night, I was one of 23 women who were part of a project at Colorado State University for International Women’s Day. The Theme was resilience. And there were four amazing speakers, three students and one professor, who told their stories of challenge and achievement, and reminded us ‘older’ ones what our role needs to be for the future generation: role models of resilience.
The three students exhibited courage as each spoke about their personal challenges and how the challenge and their answer to it changed their lives. One woman had arrived with her family from Argentina, and had attended school in the U.S. It was only when she applied for college did she realize she was undocumented. There would be no grants, no scholarships, no help of any kind. This, on top of the secrecy of even existing in the country that she’d grown up in. With the help of her family’s meager wages, and juggling many facets of her own life by working long hours and taking a full time schedule, she eventually achieved her dream of obtaining a college degree. With the achievement of that degree, she vowed never to be silent and to never stop fighting for those who find themselves in the same kind of barrier.
Another woman gained acceptance into CSU from her home country of Columbia, where she sought to obtain a Ph.D. in ecology, a degree that would help her understand and protect the rich environment of Columbia’s rain forest. The barrier she faced was that she was pregnant, and she’d been told by her family, her adviser, and many of her professors that if she wanted to finish college, she couldn’t do it with children. They made it sound like an either/or decision, a decision that could forbid so many women from entering into higher education. Therefore, she didn’t accept that ‘truth.’ She did finish her Ph.D. in eight years instead of five. She also took her children into the field with her, educating them in all the ways nature was important. She was not only working to protect her environment but raising another generation that would, hopefully, carry on that important tradition.
Another, a trans-woman, reminded me that sometimes the way we feel inside is not what is portrayed on the outside. She is part of a culture that is not comfortable with ‘between-ness’, in her case the gray area of gender, and she vowed to live her life honestly and with integrity, a wholeness of being that required her to deal with the very real comments of difference and, at times, disgust. Her voice was pressured to be doubly silent: as a woman and as a trans-woman. But she addressed each of those challenges, married and is working toward her degree and being the face of ‘difference’ in a very real and very important way.
For each of these women, getting up and telling their story of challenges that lay deep within our cultural ideals, and telling us how they not only countered them, but achieved something amazing despite of them as memorable, for everyone in that room.
The fourth speaker, a middle-aged professor, reminded me of what my role was as an ‘elder’. My voice could have been silenced, and was in many ways, for many reasons. I am a woman, I am American Indian, I was adopted into a white family, making me ‘in between,’ I lived in a family where alcoholism abounded and where mental health issues were present. I attended a university where my intellect was dismissed and diminished, in a culture where I wasn’t supposed to attain much, let alone achieve much. I will be 60 this month, and I’m still here, in spite of all that. Therefore, my stories of resilience, of overcoming difficulties and challenges are important for the next generation of women to hear, all women. Not only do they give hope, they provide a road map of achievement. My stories allow me to measure personal growth, in confidence, courage, and leadership. Survival.
I wouldn’t change my age for the world. I wouldn’t change my gray hair; it is a sign that I have lived a full life that, at times, was very difficult and demanding, and at times destructive.
And I am still here.
For the next generation.