Building a web of connections through a women’s studies conference
On March 24–25, 2022, the BYU Global Women’s Studies (GWS) program hosted the first annual Utah Southwest Regional Conference on Student Research in Gender and Women’s Studies. BYU and Weber State University (WSU) programs came together to share and to celebrate their research in this two-day inaugural event. While conferences always educate and connect students, this conference was specially designed to give students the chance to connect with peers and mentors in their field from places outside of their own university program. Professor Valerie Hegstrom (Spanish Literature), director of BYU Global Women’s Studies, and WSU Professor Melina Alexander (Special Education), director of WSU’s Women and Gender Studies, organized the conference with this purpose in mind.
The event was held primarily in the Kennedy Center and the Harold B. Lee Library, where students and faculty from both universities met up for exhibits, a speed-networking luncheon, and, of course, student research presentations. In addition, three special keynote sessions shared the spotlight with the students:
- Susan Madsen and Robbyn Scribner with the Utah Women & Leadership Project gave a preconference colloquium about their research on uncovering behaviors of sexism in Utah.
- Katherine Kitterman, Rebekah Clark, and Tiffany Greene—the panel of directors for the nonprofit Utah women’s history organization Better Days 2020—gave the first plenary session. They stressed the importance of stories, and they gave advice to students who are trying to find their place in women’s studies.
- For the final plenary session, mother-daughter artist duo Jann Haworth and Liberty Blake presented on their educational mural, Work in Progress. They described working together on artworks that feature women and women’s history and spoke about using art as a teaching tool.
On the second day of the conference, students, instructors, and advisors participated in a networking luncheon where they (armed with their boxed lunches) rotated tables every ten minutes. Tristan McAfee (Psychology ’22), one of the student presenters, said that the luncheon “helped connect me with some awesome people who could help me out in my future career as a marriage and family therapist.”
The students took the main stage among the guests, food, and exhibits. In the months before the event, students working on research in gender and women’s studies were encouraged to submit applications to be presenters at the conference. At the conference, eighteen students from BYU and WSU presented on topics ranging from women’s spirituality to historical figures, from abuse to quiet successes that need to be celebrated.
Tristan presented on psychological abuse education in US schools, drawn to the topic by her own experience with abuse. She wanted to communicate that “including [education on] psychological abuse was vital for the health of our students, as psychological abuse always precedes other forms of abuse, and it often starts in romantic relationships taking place in the teenager years.”
Associate Professor Marlene Esplin (Contemporary US and Latin American Literature) praised the student presenters, saying, “They are doing graduate level research [on] projects that could be taken up as master’s theses or publications in student and/or peer-reviewed journals.” Esplin also noted that the students are “learning how to articulate for a wider audience the importance of their projects” and that transcending disciplines and reaching a wider audience are core aspects of GWS.
After two days of students womaning tables at the conference, networking with each other, showcasing their work, being inspired by mentors, and eating lots of brownies, the conference wrapped up with a birthday party celebrating Harriet Tubman—complete with cupcakes and the movie Harriet. As Hegstrom was reflecting on the conference, she said she was “really grateful for the ways that the conference allowed the students to be showcased, their work [to be showcased],” and for the chance to get to know each other. The directors intended the conference to be focused on student research and networking. As an opportunity to meet each other, share research, and celebrate the fields of gender and women’s studies, the event fulfilled that purpose. The directors of the conference look forward to even more of that as they expand and include more colleges in the future.