Friends of Women’s Studies: A Grassroots Success Story

By Lisa Y. Garibay

UTEP News Service

As the spring semester drew to a close, a group of students in the Women’s Studies program got together for their penultimate class to go over the service learning experience and internships their semester had given them. Although wiped out from months of study, class time, and balancing school with home and work, this particular group was enlivened with passion about their internship experiences.

The internships were made possible by the Women’s Studies program and an organization called Friends of Women’s Studies (FOWS), a UTEP-based nonprofit that was formed in 2011 to fund both service learning experiences and teach students about the power of community-based fundraising. UTEP students staff a Friends of Women’s Studies table on campus to raise funds for internships. Photo courtesy of Women’s Studies. UTEP students staff a Friends of Women’s Studies table on campus to raise funds for internships. Photo courtesy of Women’s Studies.

The UTEP students who received one of the internships not only expanded their real-world employment experience and resumes, they also received $10 per hour ($3 of which was underwritten by FOWS, while the rest came from the work site) toward a living wage without having any negative impact on the student’s financial aid. Work sites have invested more than $22,000 in these stipends and anonymous donors have contributed more than $1,500, thanks to the visibility that FOWS has helped to raise.

In return, students have given close to 3,200 hours of internship service to the local community at sites including the Boys & Girls Clubs of El Paso, the Center Against Family Violence, the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office Crime Victims Services, the Paso del Norte Civil Rights Project, and Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid. Interns who have graduated have gone on to law school, medical school, higher education recruiting and administration, and become employees at their former internships sites.

“They have helped fund more than 30 student internships over the past three years,” said Brenda Risch, Ph.D., director of Women’s Studies. “It’s an amazing way for alumni to remain engaged and have a considerable positive impact for students.” Since 2011, the organization has contributed more than $9,500 toward paid internships around the El Paso region.

Sarah Cox-Walker, a senior majoring in English, interned with El Paso Sun City Pride, an organization that works throughout the year on social justice and LGBT issues.

“It was so satisfying to get real-world job experience while still in school. It also helped me get more focus and direction about where I want to go, whereas I wasn’t sure a year ago,” Cox-Walker said. Even after her internship, the organization has continued to offer her small jobs. “It’s great because it’s extra money, but more importantly it puts me in contact with important people around the city.”

She added, “I don’t know of many programs that do this sort of thing within an educational context where we took a class alongside the internship. There, I could reflect on the experience and problem-solve or articulate when I was struggling in some places or soaring in others.”

“Our whole motivation for being is to make these internships happen,” said Sarah de la Garza, a founder of FOWS along with Carliene Quist, a Women’s Studies guest lecturer who received her master’s degree in social work in May and was recently named by the Texas Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers as the 2013 Texas Social Work Student of the Year. Rounding out the list of founders are UTEP alumna Fancy Adams; Kathryn Schmidt, Ph.D., visiting professor of social work in the College of Health Sciences; and Risch.

When Quist first heard about the support organization Risch envisioned, it immediately made sense to her.

“I had benefitted from multiple internships in college in my home state of Minnesota, and I knew the value of the stipend for me as I was juggling the financial obligations of a university education. And as Fancy, Sarah, Kathryn and I joined together, we made decisions to begin now — with creativity and resources we had. “

De la Garza tells of how five “really busy” women from all walks of life sat down, brainstormed, came up with a plan of attack, and went for it, despite their naïveté.

“Providing support for students who want to change the world through their work with local organizations that are providing social justice and social services is really rewarding,” Schmidt said. “I love that we are able to meet the interns and see the effects their projects have on host organizations here on the border. For many of the interns, the support of a class and paid internship makes this experience possible financially, academically and emotionally.”

FOWS works with undergraduates, graduate students, alumni, faculty, and members of the public to engage in grassroots fundraising through a variety of methods. Most recently, FOWS members joined with Women’s Studies students and faculty to sell cake pops at the 2013 Sun City Pride street festival. Throughout the year, they can be seen soliciting orders for Easter baskets, Mother’s Day goodies, and more as the creative and constructive spirit strikes them.

“What's remarkable to me is that we've taken items such as cake pops and baskets that are often seen as girly or even silly and used them to fund serious social change,” Schmidt said. “I think we are also reminding people that traditional women's work and talents are important and valuable.”

Quist, Risch, and Schmidt presented the FOWS model at the 2011 National Women’s Studies Association Conference in Atlanta. The model resonated with Women’s Studies faculty from around the country, particularly the angles of working with grassroots strategies; harnessing the energies and interests of Women’s Studies alums and supporters; and strengthening relationships and networks for engagement in terms of time, talent and financial resources.

The membership of FOWS is constantly changing as life events and workloads either allow for supporters to give more time and effort to the cause or take them away from it. The most obvious recruitment pool for new volunteers comes from students who have finished a Women’s Studies internship, and their enthusiasm for what they’ve just experienced often carries over to close friends and family, who then pitch in with FOWS in some way. But anyone with an interest in improving the quality of life in El Paso through education and opportunity is welcome to join.

Those interested in learning more about FOWS can visit their website, www.friendsofwomensstudies.org, or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .