KU’s Women’s Leadership Institute expands

The Women’s Leadership Institute at Kansas University is expanding a residency program that will now put female students from around the state in close collaboration with international students studying in Kansas.

The five-week program will draw female students from Kansas universities and colleges, with preference going to women from small or rural communities, who will join students from South Asia, North Africa, the Middle East and other areas.

Students in the program will live together in a residence hall and join discussions on leadership with KU faculty and staff. In the past, students have also gone on field trips to museums, soccer and baseball games, the state capital and an Amish farm.

“They will do everything” together, said Becky Eason, co-director of the institute and associate director of the Center for Public Partnerships and Research at KU. “They’re equal partners in this experiment.”

Each will also work on a project that addresses some challenge in her home town such as access to health and elder care or economic opportunities for women. Eason said that the issues from countries in places such as Pakistan are not altogether different from those of women living in rural America. With luck, students will find projects that they can team up on, dealing with the same issues in towns and countries on opposite sides of the world.

In the past, the institute organized the residencies for international students through grants provided by the U.S. Department of State. Private funds raised this year will help to bring five to ten women from Kansas colleges into the program for the first time. Because they are still raising funds and taking applications, just how many spots will be available is a moving target.

The program exposes the students to women leaders in professional and academic fields as well as U.S. and regional cultural fare. Mary Banwart, an associate professor of communication studies at KU and co-director of the institute, said often the richest experience for students in the program is a weekend when they get to live and visit with a local family. This year, she hopes international students in the program can spend a weekend visiting the hometowns of Kansas students.

In the past, those weekend trips have created “very powerful relationships that will last for long afterward,” Banwart said. For both local women and those coming from faraway countries, Eason and Banwart hope the program provides a rich education on each other’s cultural background.