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Celebrating the U’s unsung women leaders

For years, women have played an integral role in helping the University of Utah become a place of renowned scholarship, research and social progress. Often, however, many of those individuals go unrecognized despite the importance of their work and the impact it has on the U’s standing in the regional education community.

In March, the university hosted its yearly Women’s Week program—a weeklong event focused on gender issues and challenges faced in today’s climate and cultural movements. Themed, “Untold Stories and Everyday Heroism,” this year’s Women’s Week lauded the contributions of individuals who work largely behind the scenes while providing critical advancement toward community progress.

PHOTO CREDIT: Harriet Richardson

UWHEN Women’s Award Ceremony.

“This year, we really wanted to really look at intersectionality within women and how we uplift the experiences of women, whether they are stay-at-home mothers, in the workforce or from different cultural backgrounds,” said Cassie Zamora-Cathcart, director of the Center for Equity and Student Belonging and chair-elect for the Utah Women in Higher Education Network (UWHEN) University of Utah chapter. “It’s an opportunity to elevate and celebrate those experiences and come together as a community so that we can continue to strive for true equality for women.”

Focusing on day-to-day achievements personally and professionally contributing to society, the week’s events highlighted daily acts of heroism aimed at motivating attendees to engage, break barriers and foster a sense of importance in every individual’s role.

Another high point of the week was the Women’s Social & Awards Ceremony recognizing the tireless work of individuals who lift the university’s campus community and blaze the trail for women in leadership.

“The President’s Commission on the Status of Women and Equity, Diversity, & Inclusion (EDI) worked together to create this space and to recognize women across campus who have given a lot of service to the university and the campus,” she said.

The ceremony’s premier recognition was the  Linda K. Amos Award for Distinguished Service to Women. This award recognizes an individual staff or faculty member who has selflessly given time and energy to improve the educational and/or working environment for women at the university.

Amos was the founding chair of the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women, as well as a professor of nursing. She served for many years as dean of the College of Nursing and as associate vice president for Health Sciences. Throughout her career, she was the champion for improving the status and experience of women on campus.

This year’s recipient was Natalie Norlen, district manager in Facilities Management Operations. In her nomination, colleagues noted that she “utilizes the knowledge gained through her education to assist her coworkers professionally, as well as personally. This caring of others while not looking for any personal benefit for herself, is one of the characteristics that makes her special and has helped her progress in her career.”

“She has become a great example to women of the opportunity to progress at the university and continue with their education, while never losing sight of the value in caring for others.”

PHOTO CREDIT: Harriet Richardson

Mary Ann Villarreal, vice president for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, speaking at the UWHEN Women’s Award Ceremony.

The Women’s Week committee also recognized Mary Ann Villarreal, vice president for Equity, Diversity, & Inclusion with the “Everyday Heroism Award,” named after the theme for the week, for her significant contributions to equity, diversity and inclusion at the University of Utah.

“It felt particularly timely to honor and recognize all the work she has done for the past five years. It is so often the case that the important

work of social justice is done by everyday heroes,” said Kristin Maanum, Women’s Resource Center director and Women’s Week 2024 co-chair. “People like Mary Ann have shown up and continue showing up even in the face of adversity, to advocate and create pathways for others.”

“Mary Ann embodies the essence of a leader who not only leads but also serves—serving the people, the students, and the greater cause of equity, diversity and inclusion,” said Pamela Bishop, senior director of marketing and communication for EDI. “Her commitment to advocating for those whose voices may not always be heard is truly inspiring. Time and time again, she has demonstrated her willingness to stand up for what is just and fair, regardless of the challenges that may arise.”

Zamora-Cathcart said that more and more women are being elevated across the campus today.

“We have so many wonderful folks in so many different areas and we have wonderful women leaders here at the University of Utah,” she said. “I think about our Provost Mitzi Montoya, Vice President Mary Ann Villarreal and Student Affairs Vice President Lori McDonald, for example. We have built a legacy and a space where women can excel as leaders that contribute overall to a better campus environment where we are uplifting experiences of historically underrepresented folks of all identities on campus.”