It’s Women’s History Month, and FIU has plenty of remarkable females to credit for its success. The individuals featured here, some retired and others still hard at work on campus, join an impressive list of trailblazers who embraced great challenges, led by example and established legacies that continue to impact us today.
Felecia Townsend is usually the loudest one in the room—and people like it that way. Best known not for her work managing food-service vendors as the director of operations for Business Services, she instead has made her mark by commanding the microphone to emcee and sing at many of FIU’s signature events. Her stage presence and soprano voice have elevated the annual Holiday Party for Children (which she helped found in 1992), the President’s Holiday Party, the Employee Awards and Recognition ceremony, the Ignite breakfast and many others. Whether belting out the lyrics to FIU versions of “Simply the Best” and “Proud Mary” or gracefully leading a crowd in the FIU alma mater or a roomful of mourners at a memorial service, she has celebrated with the FIU family in the best of times and united and comforted it in the worst.
The warmth Townsend brings to the podium has its foundation in a love for the university that goes back to her student days in the 1980s. An Alabama community college transfer on basketball scholarship, she played power forward and center under legendary coach Cindy Russo. Two seasons later, her athletic eligibility over and still short of a bachelor’s degree—she started as a music major but switched to business—she found herself a full-time secretarial job on campus and continued her studies at night. Today the high-energy alumna shares her vocal talents with the rest of the world at Sunday services, funerals, weddings, bar mitzvahs as a member of the FIUnity gospel choir. Beyond inspiring others through her singing, however, Townsend metes out encouragement in everyday interactions. “I need to be a light for others,” she explains, mindful of paying forward the kindnesses and mentorship she has received along the way. Living her own dream, she wants nothing more than to help others achieve theirs, she says. “I really believe that’s what I’m here for.”
Carol Damian made the Herculean effort to establish an art history program at FIU after she saw how students thrilled to the subject. Arriving in 1992 with 10 years of teaching at UM to her credit, Damian made it her mission to formalize a bachelor’s degree, an endeavor that required shepherding the proposal through multiple approvals, from the Faculty Senate on up to the State University System governing board, not to mention creating a from-scratch curriculum. Her next big move, by contrast, took nothing more than answering a question posed over lunch by Phillip Frost at the home of then-FIU President Modesto Maidique. The legendary philanthropist—half of the power couple that made possible the construction of the signature Frost Art Museum building—inquired about the artwork he saw hanging on the walls. Damian replied with nothing short of the thoroughness and thoughtfulness one would expect of an art historian worth her salt. A month later, following a failed national search for a new museum director, the obviously impressed Frost, along with Maidique (whom Damian schooled in paintings and monuments prior to each of his European trips), called a meeting and offered her the job. Charged with filling the grand, soon-to-be opened 47,000-square-foot space with both exhibits and visitors (even as she insisted on continuing to teach), Damian leaned heavily on her excellent staff, a group of individuals she recruited for their talents but remembers as family.
Today retired and sitting on various cultural boards, for which she reads grant proposals and attends events, Damian is reminded frequently of the impact her work has had on young people who now form an integral part of Miami’s robust and growing art scene. “My students are everywhere,” she says of the alumni who catch up with her at openings and reach out to her for advice. “It’s gratifying,” she says. “The fact that they’re still in the arts makes me happy.”
To legions of grateful young people around the country, Zaida Morales-Martinez is simply “Mama Z.” The nickname originated with a student in Texas who received critical guidance from the lady, an analytical chemist who for 30 years taught at FIU and to this day serves as a mentor on behalf of the American Chemical Society.
Morales-Martinez landed at the newly opened FIU with years of teaching experience. Her younger colleagues, however, had mostly come straight from grad school and needed help. The only woman in her department, she began shepherding the first-time professors even as she juggled her own classes and eventually took on the role of inspiring would-be scientists at every level: local elementary school children whom she invited into university labs on Saturday mornings; high schoolers whom she took on field trips around the city; undergraduates whom she advised—meting out tough love when they fell short or slacked off—and whose chemistry club she sponsored. It followed, then, that the ACS in the 1990s would tap her for a taskforce to increase women and minorities in the field. From that grew a scholarship program that for the past 25 years (and counting) has seen Morales-Martinez annually keeping tabs on some some 400+ chemical sciences majors throughout the nation. She tracks their academic progress and exchanges communications that run from the formal to the friendly—productive efforts that prompted the ACS to institute an annual mentoring prize in her name and, more recently, to nominate her for a Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring, a laurel bestowed on her at the White House. It’s the gratitude of the thousands she has touched, however, that means the most to the professor emerita. Now well into her eighth decade, she regularly attends conferences where appreciative professionals seek her out to deliver a message she never tires of hearing: “You changed my life!”
Suzanna Rose has solid plans to level the playing field. The psychology P.D. well remembers how as an undergraduate at Penn State in the late-1960s an administrator told her outright that women had to score higher than men on the SAT exam to earn admittance. And how as a graduate student she received no mentorship support while male counterparts played poker and tennis with the male faculty to build a network that would last a lifetime. So, to continue a mission she started years ago, Rose—who arrived in 2000 to head FIU’s Women’s Studies Center and later served as senior associate dean of CASE and the founding executive director of the School of Integrated Science and Humanity—secured a $3.2 million National Science Foundation grant with a colleague to establish FIU’s Office to Advance Women, Equity & Diversity. Today she is creating a model for inclusion by educating employees on the ways that implicit bias keeps certain groups down. Through case studies and role-playing, faculty and staff learn to recognize how they often unwittingly exclude others by, for example, putting greater weight on hires with backgrounds similar to their own. That work follows on Rose’s instituting a formal mentorship program for faculty a few years ago that has since seen some 500 individuals form bonds and learn from one another. Complementary to that initiative, she started a one-day leadership program for women faculty that annually brings together 100+ participants around themes such as strategic career planning and assertiveness communication.
Invited recently to speak at a thought leaders’ conference by the National Academies of Science, Engineering & Medicine, Rose acknowledges positive changes but recognizes the continuing struggle. Case in point: More than 30 universities nationally and internationally have consulted with her about recruitment and retention of women faculty in STEM. Ushering in a new generation of appropriately diverse professionals is difficult, she says, when even Wikipedia often neglects to post bios of women Pulitzer Prize winners on its site. Such disregard for legitimate contributors, be it online or in personal interactions, “affects your aspirations,” she says of young people looking to come up through the ranks. With Rose covering their backs, however, they will get there.
For 30 years Beverly Dalrymple helped students go further. With a Ph.D. in adult ed and HR development, she started in FIU’s career services office but switched gears as research in the 1990s emphasized the increasing importance of promoting personal leadership skills—not just for SGA officers and resident assistants, as was common on campuses, but for all who would play an active role in civic and community life or seek meaningful workplace advancement. So Dalrymple assumed the challenge of launching the Center for Leadership and Service. With no budget, she quickly realized that only by combining forces with funded programs could she get anywhere. That lack of resources proved crucial to the success of what today is an active, thriving center: Working with others made clear that leadership training had its place throughout the university as a way to educate socially responsible young adults. She collaborated within the Division of Student Affairs to design the intensive, comprehensive Academy of Leaders training program. She cooperated with Global Learning to establish its Living Learning Community, which offers a residential environment built around fostering culturally sensitive world citizens. She worked with the Department of Public Policy and Administration to develop an interdisciplinary leadership studies certificate that prioritizes relationship building and change management. Leadership instruction was incorporated into the charity fundraisers Roarthon and Relay for Life, and she oversaw the creation of FIU’s chapter of AlternativeBreaks, service trips that have students planting trees in Costa Rica and working with disadvantaged youth in the rural United States. In each of these endeavors, Dalrymple explains, experienced students run the show while peer-mentoring those whom they supervise.
Today the retired, famously modest former mentor to thousands bursts with good memories. “I was always so lucky to love what I did,” she says. “I’m so thankful for the students I got to meet and work with.” As for center she founded, it’s still going strong. “They’re building on everything,” she says. “They’re making it better all the time.” ♦
Know of another FIU legend who deserves a shout-out? Mention her in a comment below. (But first check out a list of those we’ve featured in the past.)