Women’s and Gender Studies Degree Approved

By Lisa Y. Garibay

UTEP News Service

In July, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board approved UTEP’s request to create a Bachelor of Arts degree in Women's and Gender Studies, effective July 31. It became the 71st bachelor’s degree offered by UTEP.

“It brings us up to par with what other leading universities are offering,” said Director of Women’s Studies Brenda A. Risch, Ph.D. “This is a vital area of research.”Women’s and Gender Studies faculty and students celebrate the approval of a new undergraduate degree. Photo by J.R. Hernandez / UTEP News ServiceWomen’s and Gender Studies faculty and students celebrate the approval of a new undergraduate degree. Photo by J.R. Hernandez / UTEP News Service

According to the National Women’s Studies Association, the topic has its roots in the student, civil rights, and women’s movements of the 1960s and 70s, when women had little representation on campus or in the curriculum. Now, Women’s Studies goes far beyond gender with research in overall identity, power, and privilege, examining how categories of identity (e.g., race, class, gender, age, ability) and structures of inequality work off one another. Another focus is transnationalism, which looks at cultures, structures and relationships that are formed as a result of the flows of people and resources across geopolitical borders — a timely subject given how much technology is connecting the world’s population.

Risch said women’s and gender studies not only develops intellect and critical thinking, but also offers a pragmatic connection to real-world jobs.

“As a discipline, Women’s and Gender Studies strongly values curriculum components that allow students to put their theoretical knowledge to work in the community,” she said. Through the years, the program has developed courses that train and support students in community-based paid internships, and with great success. UTEP students have been able to augment their resumes with work at the Boys and Girls Club of El Paso, Center Against Family Violence, El Paso County Sherriff's Department Crime Victims Response Unit, El Paso Diabetes Association, Paso del Norte Civil Rights Project, Reynolds Home, and others. From these experiences, students have reported that they feel empowered enough to clarify their professional goals and confirm a career path.

Women's studies minors have gone on to careers as varied as nonprofit management, social work, medicine, politics, filmmaking, education and entrepreneurship. The program graduates about 17 minors each semester of the active 80 Women's Studies minors in process each year. 

The new major is designed to prepare students for a variety of graduate degrees while providing pragmatic social justice training to work in careers with non-profits, non-governmental organizations and government services. New students have already met with the department to express their interest in the major. Interestingly, the first two students to declare intent to sign up for the new major are both male.

One of them is Adrian Chavez, who hopes to graduate with the new degree in 2014.

“When I arrived at UTEP, I had a different minor at the time,” he said. “Within the past few semesters, I had taken some courses that were either under the Women's Studies category or cross-listed, and I found them to be quite interesting. When I had gone to advising with Dr. Risch, she informed me that the program was in the process of being approved to becoming a major.”

Chavez plans to double major in women’s and gender studies and psychology.

“I believe that I may benefit from both programs because one of my many passions is helping others,” he said. “By taking many courses within the Women's Studies Program, you are able to get more in-depth information on today's issues in society, as well as learning more on what we can probably say ‘unheard history.’ One of my goals later in life is to run a clinic that helps people who are victims of domestic abuse, substance abuse, and possibly who may have been victims of trafficking.” He hopes to attend graduate school after completing his studies at UTEP.

Sarah Cox-Walker said she wants to segue into graduate school after earning a women’s and gender studies degree from UTEP next spring.

I always found women's studies to be an attractive option for me because of my natural interest in the intersecting studies of race, gender, sexuality and class,” Cox-Walker said. “Because the major involves so much interdisciplinary study, I have no doubt that it has provided me with a solid foundation to build my future career in social work on. There is a good part of me that would love to work in academia, so it is a relief to know that my undergraduate degree will support me regardless of what the future holds.”

Over the past six years alone, UTEP's Women's Studies Program has experienced enormous growth, adding 21 new courses to the curriculum and developing 11 online courses. This growth has increased the number of students served to more than 600 students per semester from an average of 35, a 1,600 percent enrollment growth.

The program has added courses addressing topics in  epidemiology, women's health, and mental health issues that attract students from outside of the College of Liberal Arts, as well as those interested in the social and behavioral sciences. In order to further broaden the range of professions and postgraduate work that students who major in women’s and gender studies can move into, the program faculty have been working with Kristin Gosselink, Ph.D., in the College of Science to develop courses that will help transform medical student education.

While Risch has been the program’s full-time director since 2006, many other professors have been working hard on Women's Studies from the program’s inception in 1981 to this point. Some held the position of chair even while they were focused within other departments. These pioneering faculty members include Mimi Gladstein, Ph.D., professor, Department of English; Kathleen Staudt, Ph.D., professor, Political Science; Patricia Witherspoon, Dean of the College of Liberal Arts; Evelyn Posey, Ph.D., professor, Department of English; Stacey Sowards, Ph.D., chair, Department of Communication; and Associate Professor Emerita of English Lois Marchino.

Transformations, the UTEP History and Centennial blog, posted a historical overview of the program earlier this spring.

“As the first director of the Women’s Studies Program, I am more than pleased that this day has finally arrived,” Gladstein said of the new degree’s approval. “The situation for women in many parts of the world is little different from slavery, and education and consciousness-raising are tools we can use to fight for them. Having won one battle, we must not forget that there are more to be won.”