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The Women Who Defy Expectations, and Other Lessons from the Women of Distinction

Not everyone can say they knew in college exactly what their dream job was. Danielle Feinberg knew as soon as she saw the “magic” of Pixar’s animated short films. “The idea that STEM could create worlds and characters that I loved felt transformational to me.” Today, she’s the director of photography and lighting at Pixar, where she helped produce films such as Brave and Finding Nemo.

Feinberg took the stage with three other awardees, Amanda Nguyen, Rosie Rios, and Crystal Valentine, for the 2017 Women of Distinction Awards at the National Conference for College Women Student Leaders (NCCWSL). Each of the four women shared personal stories and advice to a room of nearly 1,000 student leaders.

Feinberg’s eighth grade class in lawnmower construction taught her a lesson in self-confidence and embracing her differences. “Doing the thing that made me different had great rewards,” she told the audience. It’s a hard lesson to learn, either as an eighth grade girl in an all-boys class or as a college student facing a field like computing that is dominated by white men. Today, Feinberg continues to pass on the lesson during her regular teaching gig at AAUW of California Tech Trek summer camps for middle school girls.

World-ranked slam poet Crystal Valentine remembers facing skepticism when she told her high school guidance counselor she wanted to go to New York University for poetry. A passionate and hardworking student, she ignored the counselor’s advice and made her dream happen anyway. “People are gonna say no all the time. But once you start saying no to yourself is when they win,” she said. People have told Valentine that they find her performances powerful, wonderful, and “a little bit scary.” She half-joked that women who defy oppression and expectations should be scary. “You are brilliant and terrifying in your brilliance,” she told the audience.

Sometimes, events centered on advice for young people seem condescending, lauding the audience’s “future” selves rather than focusing on where they are right now. All of the 2017 Women of Distinction, however, addressed the crowd of college women as powerful agents in the present.

“I’m betting on millennials and postmillennials to change — structurally change — what our future looks like,” said Rosie Rios, who was the 43rd treasurer of the United States and recently founded a women’s history nonprofit. She cited women’s underrepresentation in Congress (just 20 percent) and on S&P 500 corporate boards (also 20 percent). Diversity of thought, she urged, is crucial to progress, and it’s a gift that the rising generation seems to embrace effortlessly. “You don’t think about race and gender and orientation the same way that my generation thinks about it; you think about people for people,” said Rios. She urged the attendees to remember that talent and continue “seeing people” throughout their lives.

Amanda Nguyen reinforced the power of people — particularly students — “to change our country and to change the world around us.” She reminded the audience that her organization, Rise, started with an email to a group of college students. That email brought together a community of coders, artists, lawyers, and activists determined to improve civil rights laws for sexual assault survivors.

“I thought to myself, I have a simple choice,” she said, after she was sexually assaulted in college and faced a traumatic reporting process. “I can accept this injustice or rewrite the law. So I rewrote it.”

The organization she founded, Rise, has helped pass no fewer than nine sexual assault survivors’ bill of rights laws in seven months.

Nguyen is a rape survivor, but she emphasized that there are many other parts of her identity, including aspiring astronaut. “You can absolutely do whatever it is you want to do,” she told the NCCWSL attendees. “I want to write civil rights laws, and I want to go to space after I’m done.”

The 2017 Women of Distinction ended the night by meeting NCCWSL attendees at a reception. And the awardees weren’t the only inspiring speakers the student leaders are hearing from at NCCWSL. Scholar and thought leader Melissa Harris-Perry, Ph.D., and body-positivity advocate Jessamyn Stanley are also on the agenda.

By:    June 05, 2017