'Women's Work' Gives Alumnae a Step Up in Careers

March 29, 2012 — "I was in your seat last year, and I'm here to show you I have not been swallowed by the recession," Keiana Mayfield said.

Mayfield, a sexuality educator for Planned Parenthood Health Systems, was one of a panel of University of Virginia alumnae of the interdisciplinary Studies in Women and Gender program who spoke March 27 to fourth-year students in the program. It was the second annual event featuring graduates of "SWAG," as insiders call it, which was first offered in 1981 at U.Va. as "women's studies."

She was joined by Allison Elias, a U.Va. history doctoral student, and Nicole Eramo, an associate dean in U.Va.'s Dean of Students Office. They spoke about how their major gave them experiences and skills useful in making strides on their career paths.

The alumnae advised the undergraduates to make the most of opportunities for internships, volunteering and part-time work, with an emphasis on networking and getting to know professors.

Mayfield – who graduated from the College of Arts & Sciences last May, with a second major in sociology and a minor in biology – changed her plans for a major and career choice a couple of times in her first two years until she "wandered" into a sociology course that was part of the Studies in Women and Gender program and realized that "it clicked," she said. She found a growing self-confidence in the encouragement she received from her professors, she said.

Mayfield also enjoyed volunteering as a Peer Health Educator for U.Va. Student Health and interned with Planned Parenthood during her fourth year.

A month after she walked down the Lawn, she walked into a full-time position with Planned Parenthood. She loves it, she said. "I wanted to see if the person I was propelled to become in college would carry over and be sustained in my job and new independence," Mayfield said.

Elias, a 2002 Studies in Women and Gender graduate with a history concentration, knew she was interested in "women's work" – her senior thesis focused on maternity leave policy – but she wasn't sure what to do after graduating. She worked at a mediation center and became a certified mediator; she interned in a family law practice.

After several years, she decided to enter graduate school and plans to finish her Ph.D. in history within the year. Her dissertation examines labor organizing among secretaries and clerical workers in the 1970s.

While pursuing her doctorate, Elias said she has had several teaching and tutoring jobs.
"The possibilities are endless. A lot of people in institutions and businesses are interested in the type of perspective you learn from women's studies," she said.

In the early 1990s, Eramo had dropped out of college, thinking she'd take a year off. Moving to the Washington, D.C., area, she worked as a paralegal and read women writers voraciously.

Transferring to U.Va. as a second-year student, she became a Political and Social Thought major with a minor in women's studies, producing a senior thesis on the consciousness-raising movement of suburban American women in the '70s.

Eramo thought a law career was in her future, but a short stint in law school showed her otherwise. Her interest in women's studies led her to volunteer with Charlottesville's Shelter for Help in Emergency, a haven for women in abusive relationships and their children, a "life-changing experience."

She took a temporary post as a special staff assistant to U.Va.'s Honor Committee and explored several U.Va. connections, including the U.Va. Alumni Association's career services network. She met with other administrators, and Patricia Lampkin, vice president and chief student affairs officer.

Eramo enrolled in the Curry School of Education for a Ph.D. in higher education administration and landed a job in the Dean of Students office, where she still works.

Because of her experience with the Shelter for Help in Emergency, she was asked to join and now chairs U.Va.'s Sexual Misconduct Board, made up of faculty, staff and students who are trained to hear and resolve complaints brought under the Sexual Misconduct Policy.

The three women agreed that students should "sell" their interdisciplinary and multi-faceted skills when job interviewing. As Mayfield said, "If you are passionate about your Studies in Women and Gender degree, you can find a related job."

– by Anne Bromley