Two United States congresswomen, Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), faced a room full of university leaders, poised for a Q-and-A session on politics and women’s roles as leaders.
The congresswomen were invited to speak at the Educational Leadership Enhancement Program’s annual reunion and luncheon, which celebrates the program’s yearly graduates, and President Mark B. Rosenberg, who moderated the session, joked that sitting between the two formidable female leaders was akin to “sitting between a rock and a hard place.”
Founded statewide in 1993, the ELEP is a yearlong program that fosters leadership skills and career development for women and minority university employees. It emphasizes the values of developing relationships with colleagues and visualizing career goals through readings, workshops and conferences; and it ends with a reunion each year featuring a high-profile guest speaker who comments on the different roles leaders can take, to which all alumni of the program are invited.
“Showing up is half the battle, especially for women,” Wasserman Schultz advised the cohort of women, pointing out that this year’s reunion was held on Women’s Equality Day (which also turned out to be National Dog Day, as Ros-Lehtinen added).
The two congresswomen, who maintain a strong friendship despite being on opposite sides of the political spectrum, demonstrated throughout the session the necessity for leaders to build solid bonds with colleagues despite differences and work together to find solutions that benefit everyone.
“Debbie and I truly are friends. She’s a Democrat. I’m a Republican. We agree on many topics. We disagree on many topics. But we have learned how to disagree in a very civil way,” said Ros-Lehtinen, “and you don’t see that very much in Congress.”
ELEP emphasizes the importance of building professional relationships through mentorship, where participants are paired with a member of the university who will guide them through the program. For many in the program, the bond built with their mentors and the lessons learned from them are invaluable.
Isis Artze-Vega, associate director for Academic Support Services in the Center for the Advancement of Teaching and a member of the 2015 cohort, said the most powerful takeaway was seeing how her mentor, Senior Vice President for University Advancement Howard Lipman, built a connection with his staff through the amount of interaction and time he spent with them.
“I learned as much from his words as from his actions. I learned a great deal about leadership from the way he led,” she said. “He treated his colleagues with a great deal of humility.”
The congresswomen also commented on the topic of discrimination in the work place, discussing how women can overcome sexism in their pursuit of leadership roles.
Wasserman Schultz talked about her struggle as a young woman in politics to climb through the ranks of staff and eventually become the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, saying, “I acted like I belonged there, because I did.”
She told the group about a male representative from Central Florida who used to call her “Darlin’” instead of addressing her by name.
“If I had to be Darlin’ to make sure that [he] was going to vote for me, then I’d be Darlin’,” she said, explaining that learning to move past little things like that helped her develop a loyal and professional rapport with him in the Florida House of Representatives. Her advice: “You catch more bees with honey.”
FIU’s ELEP was founded by Barbara Bader, who started her career at FIU in 1974 as a faculty member in the College of Education and worked her way up through the ranks to hold leadership positions such as the Director of Academic Programs. Bader’s commitment to the program and each of its members is evident in the reverence with which the program’s alumni talk about her.
“You can’t talk about this program without talking about Barbara Bader. They are one and the same,” Artze-Vega said. “She is an additional mentor to each of us. I can’t say enough about how much she gives to us.”
Applicants for the program must be women and/or minorities with a minimum of two years of service to FIU, and additional requirements may apply. The 2015-16 cohort has already been chosen, but the application process will open again next summer.