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Women Celebrate Female Pioneers at UT

Published: March 29, 2007

By Robin Roger
Web Writer

Dr. Suzanne Hiebert asked a room of students, faculty and staff to conjure a mental image of pioneering. The former dean of students told the audience to think of all the images that accompany the Wild West and apply it to women at The University of Tampa more than 50 years ago.

Hiebert spoke on Wednesday in the Vaughn Center Crescent Club, where more than 100 women gathered to celebrate Women’s History Month. Each faculty member or staff member who attended invited a female student to join her. A document distributed at the luncheon recognized the contributions of women to the University in the last 75 years.

Hiebert spoke to the past, while Maureen Rorech Dunkel, vice chair of the Board of Trustees, and senior Melissa Wadley addressed the present and the future. When Hiebert started working at UT, she said women made up only 10 percent of the faculty, and 2 to 3 percent of administrative staff. There were few women in math and the hard sciences, and athletics were pre-Title IX.

“The things we had to struggle for are now part of everyday life,” Hiebert said.

She and her friend, the late Sue McCord, founded the UT Women’s Re-Entry Program. The program helped women who had dropped out of college or had never had the chance to go.

They operated out of an office the size of a closet, printing and distributing flyers themselves. They offered the first two classes for free. Hiebert said she and McCord often counseled women whose husbands forced them to choose between their families and their degrees.

The women also founded the Female Adventure Club Unlimited, made up of women faculty and staff who camped in the rain, ran on the beach and climbed an active volcano.

“There are advantages to being pioneers,” she said. “There are fewer rules and restrictions and fewer procedural maps. You have the freedom to go off road, explore, make great discoveries, and make a safe pathway for those who follow.”

A trailblazer herself, Dunkel, will be the first female chairwoman of the Board of Trustees this fall. The president of K-Force Staffing gave the students advice.

“Realize the importance of the power of personal vision, remember to say ‘thank you,’ and never be afraid to ask for help,” she said. “And don’t be afraid to celebrate who you are as a woman in the workplace.”

Feminine qualities, like compassion and empathy, can be assets on the job, she said.
Wadley implored her fellow students to reclaim their identities and not let society tell them what they are worth. She also asked the faculty and staff to serve as mentors, encouraging ambition and big goals.

“I hope people feel empowered to leave a legacy,” Wadley said. “It can seem like a daunting task, but when you have the encouragement of women who have been through it, you see it can be done.”

During the luncheon, images of women scrolled across a screen, including Sacajawea, Indira Gandhi and Anne Cary, UT’s first student. Her daughter, Nathalie Tomczak, sat in the audience. Her mother would never have dreamed how much UT would grow, she said, when she first came to register for classes.

Tomczak described her mother as unique and driven, especially at a time when most women didn’t attend college.

“I don’t think she gave it a second thought,” Tomczak said. “She knew she was going to continue her education. I don’t think she was nervous about it. She just went for it.”

She added that she was amazed by the women who spoke about where the University has been and where it’s going 75 years after her mother became the first student to enroll.

“It’s awesome to bask in her memory and the legacy she left at the University,” Tomczak said. “She was blessed to be the first. She was the beginning of that long, fabulous line of women.”

Ten “firsts” at UT:

  • First female student: Anne Cary, 1931
  • Founding director of the library: Charlotte Anne Thompson, 1933
  • First female student body president: Dorothy Thonnensen, 1942
  • First female recipient of an athletic scholarship: Judy Alvarez, 1969
  • First female trustee: Sylvia Vega, 1973
  • First female dean of students: Suzanne Hiebert, 1983
  • First female director of student activities: Linda Devine, 1983
  • First female ROTC commander: Deirdre Dixon, 2000
  • First female provost, vice president for academic affairs: Janet McNew, 2006
  • First women’s national championship: Women’s Volleyball Team, 2006