When I enrolled in Gender and Women Studies 103 — Women’s Bodies in Health and Disease — I was looking to score some quick, non-sciencey science credit. I was more than a bit skeptical about taking a GWS class because I was convinced it would label me a feminist and force ideas on me without allowing me space to consider what I thought about the issues.
Three semesters later, I’m enrolled in my third GWS class and preparing to leave the University of Wisconsin in May with a unique perspective about not only my role as a self-advocate, but also about pressing issues that are often swept under the rug in today’s society.
I say I was worried about being labeled a feminist not because I do not care deeply about women’s issues or because I write off people who actively stand up for what they believe in. Instead, I was shy about it because I had been pre-exposed to the often-pessimistic stigmas unfairly associated with the GWS Department.
As a result, I fell victim to the claims that everyone in the department was a hardcore feminist or that ideas about women’s rights and equality were shoved down students’ throats.
Today, I am embarrassed to have given those claims any credence.
In GWS 103, I learned more than I had ever anticipated about my own body, about the importance of patient advocacy, how different cultures around the world are hundreds of years behind the U.S. in fulfilling equality and so much more. In GWS 533, I am privileged to be taught by the same woman who piqued my interest in not just women’s rights, but human rights — Araceli Alonso.
Only weeks into the course, I have gained invaluable insight into the ways human rights are considered on the international field and the way one person, such as Alonso, can make tremendous differences in the lives of many.
My experiences with GWS courses have been raw and eye-opening in ways my other classes on international poverty or gender and race inequality have failed to be. The hands-on approach GWS professors such as Alonso take should serve as a prime example for the rest of the campus community and demonstrate ways in which we can improve our education standards and experiences in the classroom.
Last week, Alonso showed our GWS 533 class a documentary that depicted a real-life female genital mutilation — a practice that unfortunately is incredibly prominent in many parts of the world and one which horribly violates the most basic human rights. This video was a game changer. It was followed by a raw, taped interview Alonso performed with a female genital mutilation survivor and human rights activist.
As a student who has never traveled to the most impoverished or ethically questionable parts of the world, there is only so much I can gain from a textbook or lecture series.
In many other classes, professors trying to teach, for all intents and purposes, ignorant students about issues they have never experienced fail to achieve the rawness the GWS Department provides. The passion with which professors in the department provide their students with information, and the way in which they command respect for the material is powerful. It changes the learning experience entirely and opens up students’ minds to issues that are thousands of miles away.
With graduation quickly approaching, I’ve begun to think of all the different things on my UW bucket list I failed to cross off or things I would have done differently. I’ve also had time to think about all the things that made my UW experience one of a kind and that make me ready to dive head first into the real world. Pursuing courses outside my comfort zone and taking classes that force me to consider issues in new ways is one of the most effective decisions I’ve made during my time in Madison.
I know I was not alone in writing off the GWS Department. But the value it has to offer students, even those who have little to no interest in women’s issues, is tremendous. Students should take a leap of faith and trust that the educational foundation which GWS courses provide for students is one that will reshape the way they expect to learn in other classes, re-energize their passions for issues of all kinds and allow them to demand more of their education.
Professors throughout campus should take note of the way in which GWS instructors present information in fresh and meaningful ways in order to cover material beyond the expected minimum. Together, the UW campus should see the example the GWS department sets as a means to redefine our standards for learning and education.
Pamela Selman ([email protected]) is a senior majoring in journalism and political science.