WOWI Program Offers Support to Women at Worcester Polytechnic Institute

Contact: Arlie Corday, WPI Media & Community Relations

(left-right) Jodi Campo and Jennifer Scheipers

WORCESTER, Mass. - When women make up 23 percent of the undergraduate population, as they do at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, there may not be strength in numbers, but there is power in knowledge.

This fall WPI launched a new program to nurture the female side of campus. Women on Women's Issues (WOWI) is an effort to provide opportunities for women students to meet each other as well as women faculty, staff and alumnae. WOWI also provides activities for learning about issues that particularly relate to women, especially those who study and work in mathematics, science and technology fields.

Since no student thrives on work alone, WOWI women plan and participate in a variety of activities such as pizza parties and ice cream socials. Networking, after all, is part of any successful venture.

"Whether it's a Girls' Night Out event or a lecture from a female executive at General Electric on 'Being Effective as a Woman in a Man's Workplace,' we have gotten women together to talk and learn from each other," said Tracey Pakstis-Claiborne, assistant director of student activities and a founder of WOWI.

As a byproduct, the group develops leadership skills as students carry out these activities. Among the more active WOWI students is Jennifer Scheipers, a freshman from Bolton, Mass., who recently organized a campus safety walk. An electrical engineering major, Scheipers attended Minuteman Science-Technology High School in Lexington, Mass., before coming to her first-choice college, WPI. She found her ideological match in the WPI Plan, which combines classroom studies with hands-on projects. "If you don't know how to do something with your hands, you're not much good," Scheipers noted.

WOWI's mentoring program is one of its best features, Scheipers said. Since WPI's mascot is the goat, the program is dubbed "Goats & Kids." Goats (returning students) "adopt" new freshman kids to ease the transition into university life.

"It makes it a little easier to start the WPI cycle and get used to things," Scheipers said. "The Goats & Kids program creates a support system for everyone. Just knowing other friendly faces on campus is tremendously helpful for new students."

Scheipers' Goat is WPI sophomore Jodi Campo of Johnston, R.I.

"This fall every new freshman woman got a Goat," said Pakstis-Claiborne. "We match students by major and interests, so there are plenty of common themes to explore."

This fall WOWI sponsored two social events, two dinner lectures, an alumnae question-and-answer panel, self-defense workshops and more.

"These ideas follow requests by female students for programming that relates specifically to women," said Rosalyn Eaton-Neeb, a WOWI founder and assistant director of leadership programs in WPI's Student Development and Counseling Center. "By bringing back WPI alumnae, for example, we can show how these women have successfully navigated their lives between their WPI days and now."

Eaton-Neeb recalled how WOWI got its start with help from several women at WPI. "(Assistant Director of Admissions) Jen O'Neil was working on increasing the female enrollment and Tracey Pakstis-Claiborne was developing community-service activities," she said. "We were all new to WPI and enthusiastic about supporting women here. Then we invited Suzanne Weekes, professor of mathematics, to join us in working to provide activities and opportunities for WPI women. While our social activities are for women, our 'educational' or issue-oriented activities are open to the entire campus."

While providing support to the female minority on campus, its founders hope WOWI will encourage greater numbers of women to apply to and attend WPI.

"We are glad to know that prospective women students coming to look at the university will see a strong contingent of women here and feel more comfortable about coming to WPI," Pakstis-Claiborne said.

That goal is already making progress. In the past year, WPI enrollment has seen an increase from 22 to 23 percent in female undergraduates and from 22 to 24 percent in female graduate students.

While women are still in the minority at WPI, WOWI adds a new level of support - and welcome.

"I haven't seen it here but at my technical high school, I was the only female in my classes from freshman to senior year," Scheipers said. "I had to earn the respect of the other students, who at first treated me like a little sister. Once they figured out I was smarter than they were, I had their respect because they needed my help!"

WPI, founded in 1865, is renowned for its project-based curriculum. Under the WPI Plan, students integrate classroom studies with research projects conducted on campus and around the world.