Located in the corner of the basement of Canaday B, the Harvard College Women's Center has had to deal with physical problems like constant pipe leakage, and other challenges like failing to reach or build awareness of its existence in a great number of students due to its obscure location, that seem like unreasonable challenges for a university with an over 30 billion dollar endowment, shrinking or not. The Office of BGLTQ student life has recently been able to move out of its basement dwelling into an aboveground home.
Following that upward trajectory for the Women's Center is going to take a greater understanding on the part of the University of the serious impact that space has on the ability to create and sustain community among students and administrators on campus.
Here are the guiding questions for the Action Research component of the project:
How do women's centers like HCWC best utilize their space on campus to build community among students, admins, and interns/student staff?
What are common physical or other challenges across women's centers (examining off-campus site, another college's women's center) and how are they confronted similarly or differently?
A Review of the Existing LiteratureIn the literature, service learning is connected to its ability to create community and establish relationships between students and other individuals. Beck (1998) discusses service and community involvement as an example of “cooperative learning,” which is seen as strengthening role and belonging through a variety of ways, including enhancing teamwork. This description of a cooperative community could similarly be applied to the community of the Women’s Center. This piece could help to explore the ways that community is constructed in the Women’s Center, and how students and administrators function as actors in this community. The impact of community service learning is extended in Holsapple (2012), where the effect of service learning on understanding diversity is explored. Further, Soria (2012) looks specifically at the effects of community service on sense of belonging in college students, an angle which is most relevant to my own interests with the women’s center. Soria also notes the benefits, both academic and beyond, of service work, including better relationships with faculty, better peer relationships, and increased understanding of social issues.
The student perspective is explored through literature that examines the motivations of students in service learning. Bowdon et al’s (2014) study is useful in understanding the feminist space that is the Women’s Center, which is dedicated to promoting women’s and gender issues. Bowdon notes that service learning is often associated with feminist pedagogies, and that a large proportion of students who engage in service learning are female (2014:61). Behind the motivations of students within such spaces, Bowdon argues, is the concept of “empathy” which should be understood as shaping the actions and expectations of students who are a part of the feminist service learning process (2014). How, then, does empathy or other emotional and personal factors affect student attitudes towards the service role of a Women’s Center internship, and how does this effect differ for students and administrators?
The intersection of student and a guidance figure is explored in Schmidt & Wolfe (2009), which describes and defines “mentor partnerships,” in which mentors guide, support, and create opportunities for the protege. Not only does the protege benefit from the concrete rewards of the relationships, but so too does the mentor, who may identify with the protege and feel accomplishment vicariously through the successes of the protege (Schmidt & Wolfe 2009). While administrators and students function often as mentor and protege, how does this particular relationship deviate from the structure of a mentor partnership? What qualities are gained, or lost? I hope to answer these questions that arise from the literature through my own study of the relationships between students and administrators in a women’s center service internship.
The space of campus women’s centers as a community space is also a key component of the creation of these relationships. deLa Pena examines the role of the campus-based women’s center as a “third space” between the public and private spheres, in which healing and concepts of belonging facilitate the work of changing the world on a social level, and promotes innovative forms of activism. Kasper notes that a few of the common obstacles that women’s centers face include funding, unsupportive university administration, and challenges of increasing visibility of the center.
Given this body of literature, I hope that my action research can encompass a look into how current campus women’s centers navigate these existing challenges and build stronger relationships and community within the context of the university, and through what mechanisms this building happens.