By Annalisa Purser and Maria O’Mara
On this first day of fall semester, the University of Utah launched a new program aimed at improving educational achievement for women. Since the Women’s Enrollment Initiative was announced in October 2014, organizers have established campus and community partnerships that will provide resources such as mentorship, sponsorship and internships for women students and developed a website (women.utah.edu) to help students find resources to support them through school.
The Women’s Enrollment Initiative was established as part of the university’s commitment to helping underserved students succeed at the U. It focuses on recruiting, retaining and graduating women by providing a network of support and services.
“We already knew that women face a unique set of challenges in their journey to achieve an education,” said Debra Daniels, assistant vice president of the Women’s Enrollment Initiative and director of the Women’s Resource Center. “Through the focus groups and research we conducted during the past year, we’ve gotten better insight into the specific issues that prevent women from graduating and what resources are needed to help them succeed.”
In Utah only 25.5 percent of women receive bachelor’s degrees—2 percent less than women nationally and 6 percent fewer than Utah men. Utah leaders have created a goal to have 66 percent of Utah’s population with postsecondary degrees by the year 2020, making this initiative all the more relevant.
“People in Utah value education, but our students have many responsibilities that make going to school more difficult,” said Mary Parker, associate vice president for Enrollment Management. “By the time they graduate, 25 percent of our students have children. Day care, finances and the need to support a family can get in the way of completing a college degree. The best indicator of life success and earnings is having a college degree, and we want to give women the tools to achieve the best life possible.”
While the Women’s Enrollment Initiative is designed to be integrated into programs and offices throughout the university by making changes that support women students, there are certain efforts that will be led by the WEI committee and the Women’s Resource Center.
Since 2003, the Women’s Resource Center has increased its scholarship offerings from $60,000 annually to more than $220,000, with 100 recipients. During the past 10 years, the U has found that women who receive these scholarships have an 88 percent graduation and retention rate. The center also offers emergency grants to help women who are facing financial emergencies, such as unexpected car trouble or unplanned day care expenses. These grants have also been used to pay for books and allow women to continue with their education instead of postponing school for a job in order to cover these expenses. Among those who receive these emergency grants, there is an 83 percent retention rate. It is critical to continue the effort to increase scholarship funding specifically for women so more students can benefit from these gifts.
Over the past year, the U has also focused on creating more physical spaces on campus that support women and their unique needs. Lactation rooms have been designated, child care offerings have been expanded and a family space was established in the library to give parents a space to work on assignments while their children play nearby. The focus groups showed that physical spaces for women are needed and appreciated, and the Women’s Enrollment Initiative hopes to create more of these in the future.
“We understand the value of having a diverse campus, and women are an important part of that,” Daniels said. “Everyone is part of this initiative because we all benefit when women have college degrees. Education helps women grow personally and allows them to better care for themselves, their families, be better role models for their children and improve our state, the nation and the world. Our greatest wish is for women to feel supported, connected, safe and heard.”
Annalisa Purser is a communications specialist at University Marketing and Communications. If you have an interesting story idea, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Maria O’Mara is the communications director for the University of Utah.