The Gustavian Weekly

GWiL Conference celebrates tenth anniversary: Gustavus Women in Leadership honors women of the past, present and future | The Gustavian Weekly

By Marie Osuna - Staff Writer | March 6, 2020 | News

Alumni and former Visiting Professor of Communication Studies Ava Goepfert attended the 2019 GWIL Conference along with many others.

Alumni and former Visiting Professor of Communication Studies Ava Goepfert attended the 2019 GWIL Conference along with many others.

Gustavus Women in Leadership (GWiL) is a student- led on- campus organization, founded in 2010. GWIL was first founded by Kathi Tunheim with alumni Kari Clark (‘91).
“[GWiL was founded] to help our students advocate for themselves, live purposeful lives, and serve their neighbors for a better world. Women make up 50 percent of the population but are disproportionately represented in leadership roles in many sectors. We wanted our graduates to be able to use their voices to influence positive change in the world for issues they care about” Vice President for Mission, Strategy, and Innovation in Human Resources and the President’s Office Kathi Tunheim said.
“[GWiL’s mission is] to prepare, promote, and inspire Gustavus women in their professional and personal leadership development to reach their potential,” Tunheim said.
GWiL’s largest event is their annual spring conference, though the organization also puts on “other educational events that reinforce our mission of supporting women, providing them with resources to succeed, and providing them with a network to be connected and supported,” Conference Director and Senior ReAnn Eidahl said.
Speakers were chosen by the panel of five conference directors, who “sat together and asked who we wanted to hear from, what audience we wanted to cater to, and what message we wanted the students to get from the conference” Eidahl said.
This year’s theme is “Her Journey to the Future: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow.”
“[The conference directors] wanted the speakers to showcase what happened in the past, what is happening now, and how we are going to shape the future,” Eidahl said.
This is especially important because in addition to the tenth anniversary of GWiL, it is also the 100th year anniversary of women winning the right to vote in the United States.
“We have invited speakers from different areas we haven’t touched on before,” Eidahl said. Those who attend GWiL conferences in the past “have been exposed to top- notch speakers they would not have had the opportunity [to see] otherwise. We can learn from each of these women leaders,” Tunheim said.
Speakers for this conference come from many fields, including social justice, journalism, the Army, and healthcare. One of this year’s keynote speakers is Jessica Bennett, a feminist column writer and editor for the New York Times. “We are so excited for her to come and talk about her experience, her book Feminist Fight Club, and share a little bit about her journey and what it’s like being a journalist in our world today,” Eidahl said.
A second keynote speaker, Kerri Murray, is the president of ShelterBox, an organization that provides emergency shelters to those in need.
Attendees “get to learn from keynote and breakout speakers, and also have the opportunity to meet and engage with these inspirational leaders” Conference Director and Senior Rachel Belvedere said.
The majority of speakers this year are not Gustie grads, which “is exciting because they bring a different perspective but also get to see what makes the Gustavus community so closely connected,” Eidahl said.
In the past, “GWiL has had a reputation of being an organization that is only for white women in business. We have had so many efforts in the past to try to change that ideology by opening up our events for other majors to attend and encouraging other people to take part in these activities, but I don’t think those efforts have necessarily shown in the way that we wanted them to.
This year, by expanding our range of career paths and expanding our speakers to include more speakers of color, we hope to really challenge the status quo we’ve been known for before and overall empower a greater audience,” Eidahl said.
“[Making upcoming GWiL conferences more inclusive] was something we talked about [on the] first day. We recognize that it has not been inclusive in the past, and we recognize there are still great lengths we have to go to, but we are open to feedback.
We are opening our doors for everyone and we want them to feel welcomed in any way that we can,” Eidahl said.

“[I first attended a GWiL event] my sophomore year… I remember walking out and just feeling so empowered and so supported already with a group of amazing women and amazing people in that room,” Eidahl said.
“[I] decided to join GWiL after being invited to be a student host in the spring of my sophomore year… after this experience, I wanted to help shape the future of GWiL to ensure that Gusties from all majors and backgrounds had the opportunity to connect with and learn from driven women leaders,” Conference Director and Senior Rachel Belvedere said.
GWiL had “a huge impact on my professional and personal growth,” Tunheim said. Having “interviewed women in Sweden and Norway, two of the best places in the world for women to live and work and then compare their experiences with women who live in El Salvador, one of the most difficult places for women to live and work, motivated me to publish scholarly articles in academic journals and share with our students what I had learned,” Tunheim said.
The GWiL conference is “such a special day… there’s a certain energy that fills the air… [each conference] brings women together to learn from and become inspired by one another. It is a very unique day,” Conference Director and Senior Kate Holtan said.
“[Conferences leave] those who have come empowered and excited to continue to celebrate women… live purposefully, and create opportunities for future generations of women,” Altmann said.
Belvedere has heard from alumni and conference attendees that “the conference is an exciting day to catch up with old friends, learn from dynamic women leaders, and network with others. This year, our team of conference directors have worked hard to make GWiL relevant to people from a wide range of career interests and backgrounds… We are excited to share this with over 300 attendees and hope that they walk away inspired to create positive change in their career journeys,” Belvedere said.
“GWiL has truly displayed to me the great success that women can accomplish within this field. I have learned so much from the connections that GWiL has given me, and am grateful for such a strong network of women that mentor and guide me towards reaching my goals,” Holtan said.
‘The conference will affect everyone a little differently, but our goal is for people to walk out of the room feeling hope for the future. We want people walking out of the room feeling like they just created a whole new network of people who will support them, and who will empower them… and knowing that Gustavus is a place that provides them with a launchpad towards greater opportunities in leadership in the future,” Eidahl said.

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