Fourth annual leadership retreat teaches women’s empowerment


Anna Bongardino | Visual Editor

The office of SGB President Maggie Kennedy is decorated with quotes from women like Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama. Kennedy is a planning committee member for the Pitt Women’s Leadership Experience this year.

By Mary Rose O'Donnell, Staff Writer

In the United States, more than half of college students are women — and Pitt is taking an active role to prepare these students to become the leaders of tomorrow.

Ninety female undergraduate students will gather at Oglebay Resort on Saturday in Wheeling, West Virginia, for the third annual Pitt Women’s Leadership Experience. Over the course of two days, the participants, who were selected in October, will hear from speakers, connect with one another and enhance their leadership skills.

SGB President and planning committee member Maggie Kennedy said she hopes this program begins a journey of leadership for its participants — not just on campus, but in the community as well.

“We hope that this retreat will have provided all of these young women with a whole new network of people both socially and professionally that they can reach out to if they need something or if they want to try something new,” Kennedy said.

Applications closed on Oct. 12, but all female undergraduate students were encouraged to apply to participate in this event.

The relationship between mentors and mentees — all student-based — is the root of the PWLE experience. Mentors are students of all ages who have held or currently hold a leadership position on campus, have attended PWLE in the past or both. Mentees are typically first- or second-year students looking to cultivate their leadership skills.

SGB Chief of Staff Ami Fall is in her second year of serving on the planning committee and has seen the impact that PWLE’s mentor-mentee program has on participants.

“A lot of people that applied said that they feel they have everything in them to become this incredible leader and do these amazing things, they just need this spark from someone else to show them that it can be done,” Fall said.

Mentees are paired with mentors based on their respective majors and minors, extracurricular activities and personal interests.

“We like to keep it semi-professional, but also emphasize that these are your peers,” she said.

Fall said her own mentor-mentee experience at PWLE her sophomore year shaped her own leadership journey for the better.

“I went my sophomore year as a mentee … [My mentor] was a SGB board member at the time and later executive vice president,” Fall said. “It was right after I had gotten on board. I felt very weird jumping into a new leadership position and it was great having a mentor who was able to guide me and had just gone through what I was currently going through as a new SGB member.”

Pairs are also placed into larger “communities” of students to meet people with different majors and interests and further their connections made at the retreat.

Senior Vice Chancellor Kathy Humphrey and 2015 SGB President Nasreen Harun planned the first PWLE in Spring 2016. It’s become an annual occurrence, overseen by a committee of student and University leaders like Kennedy.

According to Kennedy, this year’s committee began planning for this year’s PWLE before the fall semester even began.

“We started conversations over the summer about last year’s retreat and figuring out what we wanted to do this year,” she said.

Though the retreat has stayed true to its roots in leadership development, the biggest change for this year’s event is the season. Based on feedback from last year’s participants, the committee decided to move the event from spring to fall in order for students to have more time to develop connections from the weekend.

“In the past, PWLE has been in March because it’s been a part of SGB’s Women’s Empowerment Week,” Kennedy said. “Based on the feedback we heard, people wanted the retreat to be earlier in the year so that there was more time throughout the rest of the year for the mentor-mentee pairings to continue their relationship, follow up with one another and do things throughout the year. In the past, a lot of mentors have been seniors that graduate and leave.”

At the event, a variety of speakers will share their leadership experiences in their respective disciplines throughout the weekend, specifically in two panel discussions — one consisting of women and one consisting of men. Both will feature Pitt professors in STEM and the humanities, as well as outside guests.

SGB Diversity and Inclusion Committee member Madhu Mahesh also serves on the planning committee. Mahesh was unsure when she heard there would be a men’s panel when she attended the event as a mentor last year.

“When I saw that on the schedule last year, I thought, ‘What? A men’s panel?’ I was very skeptical about the process, but the people on the panel were amazing … I gained a lot from that experience. A weekend for women’s empowerment doesn’t mean excluding all men,” Mahesh said.

Knox Coulter | Staff Photographer
SGB Diversity and Inclusion Committee member Madhu Mahesh attended the second annual Pitt Women’s Leadership Experience last year as a mentor.

Kennedy also spoke about the men’s panel, noting how it is important to include all types of people in the quest for female empowerment.

“We know that men and people of all gender identities need to be involved in the empowerment of the previously disempowered. We can’t do it all ourselves and we need to engage men in the situation,” Kennedy said.

According to Mahesh, the planning committee worked to create diverse, well-rounded panels for this year’s PWLE. Mahesh, Kennedy and Fall all shared that Vice Provost and Dean of Students Kenyon Bonner will be speaking on the men’s panel this weekend.

Other members of the planning committee include Summer Rothruck, director of the Office of Cross Cultural and Leadership Development, Allie Chornick, William Pitt Union manager, and Sarah Webb, assistant director for Annual Programs for Young Alumni Engagement.

In an email to The Pitt News, Rothrock shared her thoughts on the value of having a program like PWLE at Pitt.

“PWLE is important because it provides a space and opportunity for students who identify as women to learn and grow with one another,” Rothrock said. “The opportunity to leave campus for a weekend and just focus on personal development, career goals, broadening perspective and mentorship is a unique experience that has deep value.”