Recruit & Retain (Otterbein University)

Ensuring Success for Women

As the first female president of Otterbein University in Westerville, OH, I understand the importance of creating opportunities for women. We know that globally, without an education, women are more likely to marry earlier, plummet into poverty, realize less economic security and lack access to health care.

Yet, creating a pathway for young women to be successful can be challenging. College students, and even women in corporate jobs, can face barriers as they try to move into leadership roles. Cultural stereotypes and social bias can discourage women from pursuing certain intellectual paths.

As a pioneer in cultural diversity — Otterbein has accepted women as faculty and students since its founding in 1847 — the institution felt uniquely poised to take on the challenge of ensuring that girls stay on a pathway to success.

Otterbein developed the Otterbein Women’s Leadership Network (the NET, for short), which focuses on assisting in the development of middle school and high school girls and college-age women through education and mentorship. We piloted the NET in the fall semester of 2011 with 20 first-year female students. Today, the program has over 100 students. The goals of the NET align with its acronym — N-E-T:

Network — Connect female student leaders with mentors. The NET matches university students with women leader mentors from the Columbus, OH, community during “speed networking” events. Once matched, mentors are expected to work with their students through their senior year and ultimately, help them start their professional career.

Educate — Provide educational opportunities. A large part of the success of the program has been our efforts to provide women the skills and strategies to develop as leaders through in-class and professional opportunities. Female student leaders in the program participate in a first-year seminar class on women in leadership. We also educate these women, as well as our female mentors in the boardroom, through a women’s leadership lecture series and annual leadership opportunities.

Transform — Students mentor others and lead programs. This initiative provides programming for sixth, seventh and eighth grade girls to help them break down barriers and overcome the obstacles standing between them and a high school diploma. The NET student mentors have facilitated three innovative weekly clubs at a local middle school to provide 135 diverse, at-risk teens with an opportunity to come together to talk about healthy relationships, school, wellness, body image, leadership, confidence, academic skills and other issues they may be facing.

Long-Lasting Benefits

Our assessment of the program’s impact has been very positive. Otterbein students in the NET report feeling more connected with women in the community, and 100 percent of them reported new strategies to overcome barriers to future success by working with their mentors. You can recognize these women student leaders all over campus today. They have been elected to the University Board of Trustees; they serve as peer mentors, orientation leaders and resident assistants.

They have founded student organizations, secured internships working with women’s organizations and traveled abroad to serve international nonprofits supporting women and children. One student found her voice as a peer advocate on Team Consent, a program that addresses sexual assault on campus.

To gauge the outcome of our efforts toward the younger members, we administered surveys to the at-risk middle school girls in the program and assessed over 800 journal entries written by the girls as part of the program over the course of the academic year. Our data overwhemingly show that the program had a direct positive impact on a wide variety of social and attitudinal indicators.

While our goal is to positively impact the lives of these young women, our professional women mentors have acknowledged finding mutual value in their roles as mentors.

For Otterbein, we feel strongly that we remain engaged in our community and that it’s our responsibility to ensure the wellness and strength of people who live here. Intergenerational partnerships have proven to be key in helping women break down the barriers that may exist for them, whether they’re in the classroom or in the boardroom.

This article originally appeared in the April 2015 issue of College Planning & Management.

About the Author

Kathy Krendl is president of Otterbein University in Westerville, OH. Otterbein has consistently been included in the Carnegie Community Service Classification, the framework for recognizing and describing institutional diversity in U.S. higher education, in part, thanks to programs like the NET.

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