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Reflections on the Final WIL Weekend 2018-19

The weekend of February 15, 2019 marked the final “WIL Weekend” for my cohort of Fellows from the 2018-2019 Women’s International Leadership (WIL) Program. I have previously shared my experiences from attending the Fall components of this nine-month-long women’s leadership development program for female Residents at International House, New York. The final WIL weekend was unlike the previous weekends. While the previous components on leadership training and professional development had focused on us Fellows, this weekend focused on the community. The program curated by the WIL Advisory Council had aimed for us to gain exposure to the work of organizations with a strong social mission. More importantly, the Council had wanted us to hear the stories of the inspiring individuals behind these organizations. For a start, the WIL Fellows had the chance to step out of I-House and venture into two neighborhoods with contrasting histories and characters. For the first part of the two-part weekend, we found ourselves in Midtown Manhattan amidst its midday hustle and bustle. We had the privilege of being hosted by the Ford Foundation to a luncheon at its landmark Center for Social Justice. The Foundation, established in 1936 by father and son, Edsel Ford and Henry Ford, is one of the largest American philanthropic foundations. Through grants and initiatives, it advocates and supports the work of individuals, communities and institutions around the world for the advancement of social justice. Over lunch, representatives from different departments shared about their work at the Foundation, as well as the professional journeys that they have undertaken thus far. A sharing by one of the Foundation representatives left a deep impression on me. “Entertain every curiosity you have,” said Dr. Wilneida Negrón, a technology fellow at the Foundation, to the WIL Fellows in attendance. Dr. Negrón is currently with the Gender, Racial, and Ethnic Justice team, researching and creating digital platforms and data-centered insights to improve access to justice for vulnerable communities.  Prior to Ford, she was a civic researcher and technologist, and had obtained a Ph.D. in Comparative Politics. With more than a decade of nonprofit and public sector experiences under her belt, she recounted how her obsession with fairness and justice had led her to seek out various professional opportunities in her life. Reflecting on her nonlinear career path, she shared, “Now that I am in my 30s, I can step back and make better sense of my career trajectory. In the early days of your career, take time to learn about yourself, and find out what interests you.” The following day, the WIL Fellows trekked cross-town into Central Harlem, and were hosted at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. A past Ford Foundation grantee, the Center first began in 1925 as a special collection of the 135th Street Branch Library. Over the years, it has expanded its collections, services and program offerings to become one of the world’s leading institutions dedicated to the research, preservation, and exhibition of materials representing the history of the African and African Diaspora experience. For most WIL Fellows, it was our first time visiting the Center. We were greeted by Mary Yearwood, Director of Collections and Information Services, who presented to us rare manuscripts and archives, including articles from the James Baldwin Collection. As an avid lover and performer of classical music, I was thrilled to see on display pieces of sheet music composed by Chevalier de Saint-Georges, who was remembered as the first classical composer of African origins. For WIL Fellow Sandy Joseph (U.S. and Haiti), the final WIL weekend had offered her many memorable moments. She described the Ford Foundation visit as her favorite session in the program. She particularly appreciated the candid advice provided by the female leaders including how making mistakes and “failing” were stepping stones to success. On the visit to the Schomburg Center, she remarked, “Visiting the Center with WIL Fellows coming from different corners of the world was a great experience. We learnt about the rich African American history and culture of Black Leaders, which is at the heart of Harlem’s history and Black History overall.” Sandy is currently completing the final semester of her Master’s program in International Educational Development at Teachers College, Columbia University. Upon graduation, she aspires to work in the non-profit sector in Washington, D.C. With the WIL program coming to an end, I looked back at the various experiences, and realized how much I have grown as both an individual and leader. The program has made me realize that such a thing known as “Women’s Leadership” is more than a sheer means to shattering the glass ceiling. It is about women making an impact on the world by helping one another lead meaningful personal and professional lives. For all the valuable takeaways, I am thankful for the opportunity to be part of this program, which is made possible through the support of I-House donors and Bayer U.S. On how the program would evolve in the years to come, I-House Trustee Lauren States, who chairs the WIL Advisory Council, remarked, “The program has been through twenty-eight cohorts of Fellows – many of whom have moved on to launch highly successful careers. We will continue to enhance the program and experience, as we have always done, so it remains relevant to the needs of our Fellows and more importantly, accelerates their journeys to their full potential. Ultimately, we want to prepare them to have a significant impact in their careers and their communities.” Yibing (“Bing”) Quek is a Ph.D. student and Research Fellow at Columbia University, where she studies the intersections between ethics and education, and the field of higher education internationalization. She relishes all opportunities to examine and converse on both contemporary and enduring education phenomena. Previously, she was part of the Singapore Government’s Public Service Leadership Program and led curriculum and policy projects at the Ministry of Education and Ministry of Communications and Information. She is also an advocate for literacy, learning and women empowerment, and was a Women’s International Leadership (WIL) Fellow at International House, New York in 2018-19. Follow Bing on Twitter @bingquek, and connect with Bing on LinkedIn.