International Women’s Day Q&A with Jessica Bolin and Alli WhitenackMarch 7, 2019 • Kyley Underhill • No Comments
The Campus Y has always fostered a sense of gender equality found in few other places at UNC. The original YWCA – established in 1937 and consolidated with the YMCA in 1964 – provided women rare opportunities to gain leadership experience in a male-centered environment. Beginning with the women’s liberation movement in the late 1960s and continuing today, the Y took a leadership role in social justice issues affecting women. This International Women’s Day, we’re celebrating the 2018-2019 Campus Y Co-Presidents, Jessica Bolin (’19) and Alli Whitenack (’20), as their term comes to a close.
Q: What attracted you to the Campus Y?
J: When I attended Catalyst Conference my first year of high school I was blown away by the impact student leaders at the Y were having on campus and in the community. The three day conference was the first time I had seen students taking the lead in workshops, lectures, and large scale social change. From my first day as a student at Carolina I knew I wanted to be a part of that community, one that is rooted in advocacy and empowerment.
A: I gravitated towards the Campus Y because I knew that I was interested in gender equity, and I’d heard such amazing things about the Y. Once I started meeting folks who were involved in the Y, I knew that this was a place that I needed to be a part of.
Q: Describe the Campus Y Co-Presidency in 3 words.
J: Affirming, challenging, uplifting.
A: Community, inspiring, rewarding
Q: What’s your favorite memory from your Co-Presidency?
J: When I think back on my Co-Presidency I don’t think I will look to meetings with administrators or planning protests or creating conference agendas. What I’ll remember most is running around campus and Chapel Hill with Alli, the hours spent in our office answering emails and drafting cabinet meetings, and, of course, the constant trips to Cosmic for burritos. I know this isn’t one specific memory, but that’s because the foundation of every positive moment I’ve had throughout the year has been based in the community Alli and I worked to build among the Y and other progressive organizations on campus.
A:I think my favorite memories were the times that we held organizing meetings with other student leaders on campus. These were meetings that we would host to plan events or protests or write statements, and we would convene student leaders from other organizations across campus. Being in those rooms and experiencing the power and the wealth of knowledge was always so inspiring and motivating. I feel so privileged to have been able to work with the incredible leaders that we have in our community.
Q: What’s been the most surprising aspect of being a leader on campus?
J: When I first became Co-President, I didn’t fully appreciate how emotionally invested I would become in the Y’s work. Similarly, I did not expect so many people to perceive my emotional investment as an unnecessary burden instead of an important facet of my leadership. I have been surprised that other student leaders and administrators often discourage being emotionally attached to social justice work, when I believe it is an asset to advocacy efforts.
A: I think what has been most surprising for me is how difficult it is to separate this work from everything else you do. I always feel like I am on-call both for the Campus Y and for my community, so when people would contact me even late I night, I felt compelled to respond. I wasn’t really anticipating dedicating my 24 hour energy to the Campus Y, and it was incredibly exhausting. It’s important to have time where you aren’t working and you just get to relax and be a human, but at UNC we are constantly pressured to be everything all the time, so we really don’t have that time to rest.
Q: The International Women’s Day theme this year is “Balance for Better.” Their website describes this as “Better the balance, better the world. Let’s celebrate women’s achievements, while calling for a more gender-balanced world.” Are there ways that the Campus Y (or other spaces at UNC) are working towards this?
J: Due to UNC and the Y being disproportionately female, female-identifying students don’t have to look far to find a woman in a leadership position. From CUBE to committees to co-presidents, the Y has a strong reputation of uplifting and empowering women leaders. While the Y and UNC often see the need for gender representation through the lens of wanting and needing “better balance”, I think we as a culture can do more to cultivate conversation about how that balance also greatly contributes to a better world.
A: I think that the Campus Y is a very open and welcoming space to women, particularly cisgender women. Historically, the Campus Y has always had at least one woman as Co-President, and most recently, women have comprised the majority of Co-Presidents, the Executive Board, and Cabinet. I think that what the Y should be focusing on in the future in terms of gender-balance is the inclusion and representation of transgender and gender non-binary folks. Apart from the Y, there are so many incredible organizations that do great work to include women in STEM fields and more traditionally male-centered academic spheres.
Q: What advice would you offer to women starting at Carolina?
J: I wish someone had told me that feeling unprepared when you come to college is very normal. I once read an article about how women are raised to be perfect and men are raised to be brave, and it’s stuck with me ever since. So, for any young woman entering Carolina, I would encourage them to embrace feeling overwhelmed, and remind them that it’s okay to ask for help and, even if it may not feel like it in the moment, you’ll probably grow from the experience.
A: I would tell women starting at Carolina to trust their experiences. So often women, particularly women of color, are told that their experiences are invalid or untrue, and this has very severe ramifications for their health and wellbeing. I’d encourage them to be kind to themselves and trust that they are the experts in their own lives, and no one else can define their experiences and their reality for them. Once you claim your life experiences as truths, you can really begin to learn more about yourself and those around you.
Q: Campus Y leadership is serious time and energy commitment. How do you practice self care and stay motivated?
J: I stay motivated by reminding myself that even when I do not have faith in myself, there are a lot of people who have faith in me. I am really lucky to have friends and family who are nothing but supportive, and they are always there for me when I need a reminder about why I do what I do. For self care, I highly recommend getting a library card! I try to read books for fun, and my library card also gives me access to movies, podcasts, and audiobooks. If it’s been a particularly bad week I recommend rewatching season five of Parks and Rec and having breakfast for dinner.
A: Being a student leader at UNC is incredibly demanding because there are so many things that are required and expected of you. I have had to seriously establish some boundaries with myself in order to keep myself going. For example, I have to get at least 7 hours of sleep per night and eat three meals a day: these things are non-negotiable for me. Additionally, I also need time to be by myself and play with my bunny, Jupiter! When I’m having a rough day or a rough week, Cosmic burritos and watching the Great British Baking Show are my go-to emergency self-care practices.
Q: What is one thing you’re looking forward to?
J: Graduating!! I have loved my four years at Chapel Hill and I’m going to miss this place so much, but I am excited for the next phase of my life. I am also looking forward to taking advantage of all Chapel Hill and the Triangle has to offer in my last few months as a student – mostly Mapleview, Eno River State Park, and the Ackland (in that order).
A: I am hoping to travel to Tanzania this summer to study Swahili and do research on women’s access to land in Tanzania. I am incredibly excited for this opportunity because I think it will help solidify my understanding of what I want to do with my life. I know that, if I am able to go, it will be such a formative experience, and I cannot wait for all of the relationships and memories I will make.
Q: Where do you want to be in 5 years?
J: In five years I hope to have a job that combines my interests in women’s rights and foreign policy. At Carolina most of my coursework and research has focused on how local grassroots organizations and international organizations can work together to implement sustaining and effective change in their respective regions, and I would love to have a career that would allow me to continue to pursue these interests.
A: In five years, I hope to be living somewhere up North, hopefully with a job doing some sort of local or international organizing work or completing graduate school. I think above all else, the most important thing that I’m hoping for is to have at least two cute dogs.
If you could have dinner with three women, dead or alive, who would you choose and why?
J: I would love to have dinner with my mom and grandma when they were my age. There are few people who have had such an impact on my character and identity as the two of them, and I would love to get to know them when they were also about to enter new stages of their lives. I owe some of the best parts of myself to the two of them, so to witness them when they were younger and still growing into their own identities would be really special.
A: Michelle Obama: Michelle is just such an incredibly graceful and impressive woman. She inspires me with her humor and the power that she exudes everytime she speaks. Ruth Bader Ginsburg: I think Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s story is so amazing and I admire her dedication to gender equity. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: AOC is a huge inspiration as a young woman of color who is completely unafraid of advocating for what she knows is right and best for the American people.