INSPIRE seeks to mentor women with leadership aspirations

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Photo Credit: Lex Rojas | Daily Texan Staff

Each year, about a dozen freshmen women get the opportunity to spend their next three years doing one thing: inspiring.  

INSPIRE is a three-year-long program open to freshmen that aims to provide a socially and academically supportive space in which young women practice the skills required to be successful world leaders. They aim to inspire themselves and each other. 

From the beginning, the program’s application committee looks for students who they believe could benefit most from the program. Around 50 percent of INSPIRE’s members are first-generation college students, and 85 percent are women of color.   

Accounting grad student Alexis Nguyen will finish her last semester with INSPIRE this year. She is a first-generation student whose parents left Vietnam for America during the Vietnam War.

“My parents have never stopped working since the day they came to the U.S.,” Nguyen said.  “They worked really hard to give me the opportunities to get me where I am today.”

The Center for Women’s and Gender Studies designed the program, which promotes leadership and professional skills to three cohorts divided by class — sophomores, juniors and seniors. The groups meet every other month to work on different professional and leadership strengthening projects.

Program coordinator Nancy Ewert said INSPIRE’s guidelines are intentionally vague. This way, she said, students can focus on what they want to learn, and each group can evolve based on the experiences of its individual members.

“Leadership is defined differently by each person,” Ewert said. “And in the INSPIRE program, we work towards developing the concept of leadership with each individual.“

The students participate in a six-week improv class and work on community service projects with nonprofits such as SafePlace, GENaustin and Casa Marianella. They attend conferences, present a research study and serve as mentors to freshmen students. Senior members attend an all-expenses-paid trip to the District of Columbia for the National Conference of College Women Student Leaders.

Graduate students facilitate the cohorts for the three-year term. The program chooses these mentors based on their experience in education or focus on gender and women’s issues. Textiles and apparel sophomore Rachelle Allen said she values her INSPIRE mentor, English grad student Jennifer Sapio, because she can speak openly with her.

Sapio specializes in ancient texts and the strategies and mechanisms of anti-feminism in literature. She said INSPIRE’s curriculum does not specifically aim to teach major feminist theory but does center around helping the students address the questions and experiences they will likely face as female leaders.

“We see a seed or a foundation for an interest in women’s leadership,” Sapio said. “It doesn’t come across explicitly in the application — like, women don’t often give a philosophy of feminism. But we see the seeds, and we want to give those women an opportunity for them to germinate and flourish.”

Seniors usually choose their mentees based on shared experiences. Nguyen said she and her mentee match perfectly because neither feels as if they fit in at the Red McCombs School of Business. Nguyen said she urges her mentee to remember that life is composed of more than just academics.

“You know, business school is nice, and you learn useful things, but you should pursue outside interests if you have those outside interests,” Nguyen said.

Nguyen said one of the most valuable gifts the group has given her are excellent communication skills, which she said she knows will be useful no matter where she decides to work.

“As an intern, I had to talk to head of accounting for an entire program — that was kind of weird,” Nguyen said. “I was 21 at the time and making these demands from this person that has worked at this company for forever — those communication skills were important.”