On March 31, to close Women’s History Month, the Ithaca College Women’s Leaders Series honored four women leaders during the 2023 Women of Distinction Award ceremony hosted by the Office of Student Engagement in the Peggy Ryan Williams Haines Forum.
The women honored were Diana Dimitrova, director of International Student and Scholar Services; Belisa González, professor and dean of Faculty Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging and outgoing director of the Center for the Study of Culture, Race and Ethnicity; Elyse Nepa, assistant director for the Clery Act and Prevention Education in the Office of Public Safety and Emergency Management; and Erienne Roberts, deputy director of athletics and senior woman administrator.
During the ceremony, Dimitrova’s award was presented by sophomore Jaqueline Pereira. Pereira said she has had a strong connection with Dimitrova since getting accepted to the college and deciding to attend. She said that was the reason Michele Lenhart, director of the Office of Student Engagement, contacted her to present the award.
“She [Dimitrova] gave me a lot of support and she helped me through the process of deciding what I should do because I was in a different situation from some of the other students,” Pereira said. “She was really personal with me, as she’s [great] with all the students, she embraces them and takes care of them.”
Pereira, who is an international student, said Dimitrova works with international students months before they arrive by connecting peers and helping students obtain necessary documents like visas and social security cards. Pereira said Dimitrova and her team work to acclimate students to life in the U.S. and in Ithaca, while also helping them maintain their origins by cooking traditional meals and staying in contact to ensure comfort and success.
Each recipient was presented with an award and given five minutes to give a speech. Dimitrova said she enjoyed the storytelling aspect of the event and being able to listen to each of the women’s unique experiences.
“It’s so nice to pause to make the time to reflect … [on] how much we have in common even though we came to this place from wildly different paths and backgrounds,” Dimitrova said. “I think that those stories are very powerful. … But just to stand along with these amazing women and to face this group of wonderful people. It’s a wonderful experience.”
The ceremony was centered around hearing the stories of each woman and learning about how each of them got to where they are now, what they have learned from women mentors in their lives and what their hopes for the future are.
González spoke about the feeling of isolation as a woman in leadership and using that power to uplift other women.
“Many people in this room can empathize with the idea of being the only physical person in the room who occupies your gender identity or expression, your racial identity, your socioeconomic [situation],” González said. “When I’m in rooms with other people who often have more power than me, I really enjoy lifting up the names of other people … and paying tribute to people who aren’t always in those spaces. As women, we’ve had to figure out ways to bring other people into spaces to give credit where credit is due.”
González was presented the award by junior Taina Trinidad. Trinidad spoke about González’s work and achievements at the college, like being a part of the Urban Mentorship Initiative, a program that pairs the college’s students with middle school students from Brooklyn to expose them to college life, giving current college students the ability to make an impact in the lives of young adults.
Trinidad also said González was involved in the data collection and analysis aspect of Public Safety Reimagined, a collaborative initiative between the City of Ithaca and Tompkins County that works toward making systemic changes within the city to deal with indigenous land, police violence against Black Americans and the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Trinidad described the type of leader González is at the college and said they were grateful to present the award to her. Trinidad said the devotion González gives to the CSCRE is apparent.
“I’ve had the indescribable privilege of having Dr. González be my advisor and provide a blueprint of who I want to be when I grow up,” Trinidad said. “She serves as a reminder of what we can accomplish when we dare to take up space and lead with compassion.”
Senior Linnea Carchedi serves as a Student Leadership Consultant in the Office of Student Engagement and said she has worked with Nepa at several workshops.
Carchedi said Nepa’s role on campus is to work with the Clery Compliance Committee. The Clery Act requires college campuses to provide crime statistics that happen within, on and adjacent to the college. Nepa also compiles crime statistics to inform the campus and create trainings to make the campus safer and is a part of the college’s Sexual Violence Prevention Committee.
Nepa said during her speech that she hoped to give important advice to the up-and-coming women leaders that will be graduating from the college. Nepa said having confidence is a necessity as a woman because it will allow for the comfort to try but also to fail.
“I had a willingness to learn, a willingness to try … I learned that I also needed a willingness to fail and the courage and perseverance to do that every single day, and sometimes multiple times a day, where you will succeed and you will fail,” Nepa said. “It’s never too late to change the game … you carry those experiences that you have with you … you can quite literally do anything.”
Carchedi said the annual event has been a great way for the college to showcase the work of some of its most talented and inspiring women.
“There are so many women at this college who deserve to be recognized,” Carchedi said. “I think it’s really wonderful that this is an opportunity to recognize women and women around campus who all have different experiences, who have different identities and really just hear about their journeys, but also their commonality that a lot of them were lifted up by other women behind them.”
The final woman to receive the award was Roberts, more commonly referred to as “E” by their students. Sophomore Elizabeth Pillow presented the award to Roberts. She said Roberts serves as head of the Department of Intercollegiate Athletics Compliance, advisor to the Student-Athlete Advisory Council, serves as deputy of the Title IX Coordinator for Athletics, is a member of the Alcohol and Other Drugs Committee, Sexual Violence Prevention Committee and has worked with Nepa during workshops.
Roberts leads gender-based violence prevention and diversity, equity and inclusion and bias-influenced discussions through the Institute for Sport and Social Justice and serves as chair for the Women Leaders in College Sports Women of Color Initiative.
During their acceptance speech, Roberts used quotes from authors like Maya Angelou, Madeleine L’Engle and Paulo Coelho from books that are banned or are in the process of being banned to express the importance of always learning and how to learn to support others.
“Leadership does not come easy, it does not come without challenges,” Roberts said. “The more you love something, the harder you work at it, the longer lasting impression you will make. The value of being curious is the starting point for greater understanding. This provides the spaces for voices to be heard, without judgment, criticism, understanding how a person can and needs to be supported and how we can build more sustainable and lasting inclusive environments.”
Pillow said Roberts deserved the award because of the amount of time Roberts commits to each sports team and shows they care about each athlete.
“I’m very honored to have been able to do that for her,” Pillow said. “It’s no surprise that she received this award just because of all the amazing things she’s done for our team and for all other athletes.”
Lenhart said the Women of Distinction award began honoring women four years ago after the OSE was inspired by the National Conference for College Women Student Leaders.
“It’s a really nice ceremony and because the women thought [the ceremony] was such a great thing, we thought, ‘Oh my gosh, how could we do that?’” Lenhart said. “‘We could do the same thing. We have amazing women at Ithaca College. We could do something just like this here.’ And so we did.”
Ithaca College President La Jerne Cornish was a recipient of the award in 2022 and said she was glad to see the tradition of honoring women at the college continue.
“I’ve always been a person that said, if I can see it, I can believe it, and then I can be it,” Cornish said. “So our students have an opportunity every day to see amazing women, to talk to amazing women, to be mentored by amazing women and to see themselves through these women.”
Correction: A previous version of this story mentioned that Ithaca College’s Women’s Mentoring Network honored four women leaders through the Women of Distinction award. This has been corrected to say that the Women’s Leaders Series honored the four women and hosted the event. The Women’s Mentoring Network funded refreshments at the event.