Women of Isenberg conference celebrates New Beginnings

“It’s one of the greatest days of the year”

Judith+Gibson-Okunieff+%2F+Daily+Collegian

Judith Gibson-Okunieff / Daily Collegian

By Sophie Hauck, Collegian Contributor

On Saturday, Feb. 26, students and faculty from the University of Massachusetts logged onto Zoom to attend the eighth annual Women of Isenberg Conference.

“We bring in about 40 alumni speakers, corporate sponsors [and] over 400 attendees,” explained 2022 WOI co-president Amy Brennan. “We gather for a day of panels, workshops, content, networking, connecting and we try to create a space that helps people learn and grow.”

“It’s one of the greatest days of the year where you can meet just some of the most amazing people and really learn things that are going to change the way you go about your daily life,” Brennan said. “It’s about being a woman in the workplace, but in a lot of places, it’s about being an ally.”

With a theme of “Growth, Change and New Beginnings,” the 2022 Conference Planning Committee asked attendees how they would pursue personal and professional success in the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There’s a lot of growth that happened for a lot of people in these past two years,” Brennan said. “There’s a lot of change that people now realize after two years at home or two years out of office that they want to do.”

One important change for the WOI Conference was expanding their definition of allyship.

“In the past three or four years, we’ve really tried to make an emphasis on other marginalized groups that need this support as well,” Brennan said. “Having a lens of diversity, equity and inclusion is so important to us.”

WOI centered their first panel of the day on a “Culture of Belonging,” inviting three UMass alumni to share their experience in fostering diverse and inclusive working environments.

Kamraan Moore helped moderate this panel, serving as the first male student ambassador in WOI history.

“So many men who would attend our conference would usually just be faculty or staff that we personally invited,” explained WOI co-president Skye Lovell. “And so many of them would say to us after, ‘I didn’t realize that women felt this way or that they struggled this way, and now I can understand and better help them in my environment.’”

“In the three years that I’ve been on the team, we’ve always said that student ambassadors don’t have to be a woman to apply,” Brennan noted. “[Moore] was really focused in his interview on being an ally.”

Moore encourages other men from Isenberg and the entire UMass community to participate in future WOI conferences.

“You can really grow a lot from putting yourself in an uncomfortable space,” said Moore. “It’s okay to be in that space and to be vulnerable, just to simply understand that, ‘Hey, I may not know all the answers, and I may not know how to approach allyship, but I just want to learn more.’”

UMass alumna Shantel Palacio returned to the University to deliver the WOI keynote address. Palacio has worked in college admissions, public policy and consulting, explaining that she anticipated none of these career paths while pursuing her undergraduate degree.

“The message today is twofold, and it’s unconventional,” Palacio said. “Are you ready for this one? Don’t fit in, don’t plan.”

Palacio explained how early in her career, she felt out of place in many professional environments after sharing with colleagues that she grew up in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, NY.

“We’re not supposed to bring our personal selves to work, right?” Palacio said. “Especially because of the stigma of being from Brownsville or being a woman in certain spaces or even being first generation American.”

Palacio went on to embrace her background, advocating for students from underserved communities such as Brownsville through her work as a college admissions counselor. She then launched the “Brownvillain” media project to share the stories of fellow community members. By centering her identity through her work and pursuing unplanned professional opportunities, Palacio gained a sense of purpose in her career.

“Life is about what you do when the plans don’t work,” Palacio said as she finished her speech. “Don’t plan if it stops you from doing, and don’t fit, if by fitting, you can’t see a fresh perspective or the solution to a problem.”

Brennan and Lovell, alongside their 12-person planning committee, hosted the conference on Zoom from 9:30 a.m. until 4:00 p.m., adapting to any challenges that emerged while meeting online.

“When I was a sophomore, we had a couple of things that went wrong,” Lovell admitted. “And I’m looking at the president like, ‘Oh my god, what do we do, how are we going to fix it?’ And she’s like, ‘We’re going to figure it out right now, we just need to remain calm.’”

“I definitely felt weirdly, weirdly calm throughout the day because I knew I had to, and especially as a leader, if you’re freaking out, your whole team is going to freak out,” Lovell said.

When the conference ended, Brennan and Lovell reflected on the culmination of their work with the WOI Conference.

“That’s when all the emotions came out,” Lovell said. “I’ve been on the team for three years, pretty much my whole college career has been Women of Isenberg Conference.”

“Shutting that laptop was like, okay, that was all of my time. Right there. Everything I learned over the three years was put into that day, and now it’s just over.”

Brennan noted the strength of the WOI network as she prepares to begin her professional career post-graduation.

“I got a text message from my mom during the event,” Brennan said. “One text message said, ‘These women are just so incredible and inspiring.’ The next message said, ‘I wish I had role models like them when I was your age.’”

“I think about like, ‘Oh, I have these great connections, and I have these awesome people, and now I’m friends with them on LinkedIn … But they truly are role models.”

“I got an internship through this, I got a job on campus through this,” Lovell said. “These women are just so willing to help just because they want to, because they were in our shoes.”

“They talk about breaking the glass ceiling, and they also talk about how sometimes women can push each other down to try to get to the top,” Lovell said. “The conference has never felt like that.”

“It’s always women leaving the door open for the woman behind them, leaving another seat at the table for them.”

Learn more about the Women of Isenberg Conference at womenofisenberg.com.

 

Sophie Hauck can be reached at [email protected]