For generations, the WILL* program has united University of Richmond women--and, since 2013, non-conforming and transgender UR students as well--to address social justice issues while learning about themselves in the process. From Friday, April 12, to Saturday, April 13, the program celebrated its 40th year at UR. 

“The program started in 1980,” said Holly Blake, director of the WILL* program and the associate dean for outreach education and development at UR. “It was built upon taking what students learn in the classroom and applying it to everything from their personal lives and relationships to social justice problems in the world.”

WILL* still holds to those original values, Blake said.

After WILL* was founded at UR, other universities across the U.S., such as Duke University and The College of New Jersey, have used it as a model to create similar programs of their own.

Though its values remain the same, WILL* has changed over time in response to changes in the field of women, gender and sexuality studies and students' needs, Blake said.

To celebrate these changes and all that WILL* has accomplished, the program directors planned a ceremony for its 40th year, with attendees including alumni from UR's WILL* program from every year since the program began. 

The event began Friday with a Brown Bag Discussion in collaboration with the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement. The discussion featured six WILL* alumni whose stories had been published in the book “Audacious Voices: Profiles in Intersectional Feminism,” edited by Blake and Melissa Ooten, associate director of WILL* and gender research specialist at UR. 

“Audacious Voices” features the stories of 12 WILL* alumni. Blake and Ooten view the book as a starting point to what they call the "Audacious Voices" Project, they said.

“We are going to continue telling the stories of WILL* alums with the 'Audacious Voices' Project,” Ooten said. “We created space at the anniversary event for alums to be interviewed about what the WILL* program means to them and how it has impacted them since graduation. Those stories eventually will be archived on our website.”

Later that night, current WILL* students, WILL* alumni, UR faculty and staff members, UR President Ronald A. Crutcher and WILL*'s founding team all came together for conversation and celebration.

“Students got to see the staying power of the program through the alums,” Ooten said.

Ooten said college students were often focused on their next step, so seeing what alumni were doing after graduation was both meaningful and powerful. 

The event attendees conversed about social justice and feminism. Additionally, the WILL* alumni shared their past achievements as well as their career and personal goals with the current students in the program.

“The honesty with which they spoke and the kind of conversations that occurred over that weekend were just amazing,” Blake said.

Students agreed they benefited from the conversations had with alumni.

“My conversations with alums showed me how to take feminist theories and ideas and put them into action in ways I never thought possible,” said sophomore Maggie Castelli, a member of WILL*. 

On Saturday, the event concluded with an alumni-only workshop on the power of storytelling, conducted by speaker Alexis Pauline Gumbs. Her work helps prepare WILL* alumni for the "Audacious Voices" Project, Ooten and Blake said.

The weekend's events brought WILL* alumni of all walks of feminism together, said senior Kylie Britt, WILL* president. 

“Overall, the 40th anniversary showed this is a need that isn’t going away," Britt said. "This is a resilient program.”

Contact features writer Alex Maloney at alexandra.maloney@richmond.edu. 

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