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Center examines gender issues on global scale

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Co-founders Lisa Fine and Ann Ferguson drew upon the foundations of the separate women’s studies programs at MSU to capture their strengths in one curriculum and one building.

MSU now has a center focused on centralizing and enhancing women and gender studies on a global scale. The Center for Gender in Global Context (GenCen) is located in the Michigan State University International Center.

Previously, the women’s studies programs were scattered around campus: Women, Gender, and Social Justice (WGSJ) in the College of Arts and Letters and the College of Social Science and the Women and International Development Program (WID) in the International Studies Program. GenCen rounded up the programs to create a hub for Women’s and Gender Studies.

“It is simply a more efficient use of resources in a time of increasing scarcity in public institutions like MSU to have a centralized women and gender center rather than having it dispersed over many different places,” Fine said.

Tracy Dobson, co-director, said there were many reasons for creating this center, one being that MSU has quite a bit of expertise in the area of feminism, gender and women but they weren’t visible.

“We thought it would be a very positive thing to create synergy and attract more students and faculty to the area if we brought them together,” Dobson said. “The impacts of issues involving women and gender are in every nation and culture and the feedback for GenCen has been remarkable. It’s about gender relations, and with the human population pretty evenly split between men and women, it’s a very significant topic in every realm and endeavor, from the family to

The creation of GenCen was a two-year process. The founders worked intensely formulating a strategy, speaking to department chairpersons across campus and raising awareness for the center’s need. Many departments had interest in the idea due to an increasing number of women in almost every field. Among the interested were the departments in the Colleges of social science, humanities and agriculture and Natural Resources.

“The administration was not only recognizing that the faculty was doing research in this area but they were on the leading edge of the research,” Fine said. “It was amazing for me to discover that they recognized the work on gender.”

GenCen offers distinctive new programs providing lessons outside of the classroom. A unique study abroad program for students interested in gender, agriculture, natural resources and international development will take place in spring 2008. The program will feature an on-campus component for six weeks at the beginning of the spring semester. Students will then travel to Ghana for an eight-week internship working with a non-governmental organization in their field. Such a program is a first at MSU.

“We’re not aware of other programs like this and this is the kind of thing we’re looking to develop,” Dobson said. “We had faculty fanning out across the globe this past summer, meeting with people of various institutions in India, Africa and Latin America working at new and exciting connections we could make that would be good for faculty and student research, teaching and outreach.”

With new programs, GenCen hopes to be a model for other universities. “We were, and I think, remain the premiere international U.S. institution,” Dobson said.

Currently, MSU students cannot major in women’s studies. The major has been in moratorium for the past three years as the new curriculum was designed. Students may have the option of an undergraduate specialization in Women, Gender and Social Justice (WGSJ) as an elective. With approval from the University Curriculum Committee, women’s studies will be available to students as a major fall 2008. Having women’s studies as a major at MSU is an important initiative to have back, Fine said.

Because women and gender studies are a very specific point of study, it can be hard to find opportunities for students to find internships. Monica Mukerjee, a James Madison senior majoring in international relations and psychology, was excited when she heard about GenCen.

“I saw an e-mail on my James Madison list serve and got an interview,” she said. “I was excited because my own research is focused on gender issues in an international context. It’s a small field to work in and it’s hard to find support.”

Mukerjee’s internship involves doing administrative tasks and writing working papers for Women in International Development. The papers are written by scholars on a broad range of disciplines and published online by the Women in International Development Program. Mukerjee is working as an editor on a special issue about sexual violence during war time. She feels gender relations are an essential part of learning for the world that has been missed for a long time.

“GenCen creates knowledge. It unites backgrounds, disciplines and provides networks. It’s incredible,” Mukerjee said.

Despite the new programs and initiative, the directors stress the vitality of GenCen.

“Gender is not a sidebar. It is important to every academic scholarly endeavor. We set ourselves to promote that in every way we can,” Fine said. “The fullest integration of information about women and gender into a curriculum reflects the fullest integration of women and others who haven’t traditionally been in positions of power into the intellectual life of the university. We see this as an intellectual exercise but also one that furthers the cause of women’s human rights.”

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