Mary Vascellaro '74, P'07
This interview is dated 10/17/2011.
Mary Vascellaro is a Women's Leadership Council Executive Committee Member and Steering Committee Chair for the 120 Years of Women at Brown Conference. Mary is excited to share the history of women at Brown and to strengthen Brown's intergenerational alumnae community.
In light of the Women's Leadership Conference: 120 Years of Women at Brown, how have women influenced Brown, and how has the University influenced women to date?
This was precisely the question that we asked as we started planning the celebration. The whole conference is really an exploration of the legacy of women here and the place of Brown women in the world. The history of women at Brown is a history of the search for equity. Princeton and Yale each celebrated 40 years of women at their institutions and women have been attending Brown three times as long.
In 1970 I enrolled at Pembroke College, and by the end of that year Brown's two undergraduate colleges, Pembroke College (for women) and The College (for men) were combined. It was a transformative time to be at Brown and was a significant change on campus for women. There's a timeline that was created for the 100th anniversary which starts with Sarah Doyle's birth in 1830. In 1891, under the leadership of President Andrews, women were first admitted into the Brown Women's College. A lot of alumnae don't know our history and I myself was surprised to find out that the name "Pembroke" wasn't given to the Women's College until 1928, after a male-led movement to separate women from Brown. Interestingly, Pembroke College was built entirely through fundraising efforts of women. Brown has rich archives of women's history, and I'm really hoping to see those highlighted and exposed at the conference.
How has the role of women at Brown changed since you went to school here?
Alumnae have shared that, in their experience, Brown was really gender-neutral. They didn't know it was any different to be a woman at Brown than to be a man. There were no shrinking violets! But once they graduated from Brown, they found that the real world was different. In terms of a monumental change, of course, everything coheres with President Simmons' appointment in 2001 as the first African American Ivy League President who also happens to be a woman. It's bittersweet that we'll be saying goodbye to her at the conference. It's a great opportunity, but it's sad at the same time, and definitely something to focus on at the celebration.
As you are strongly involved with women at Brown and beyond, has there been a specific woman in your life that you look up to as a role model or mentor?
As I thought about this question, what I realized is that it's not one woman who has been a mentor to me, but many. Those women are the Rhode Island Pembroke alumnae. They were the ones who gave me a scholarship to come to Brown and have been my role models.
My father died when I was 14 leaving my mother with a small pension and her income as a seamstress. I applied to Brown as a dream, knowing that other universities were more affordable. I still remember the day I visited campus and had my interview with those women at Pembroke. Without their generous support I would not have come here. They made my Brown dream come true. Today, my husband and I direct our philanthropy toward financial assistance for students for that reason. We try to emulate the generosity of an educational gift.
What does celebrating 120 Years of Women at Brown mean to you? How has the Women's Leadership Council and the Pembroke Center helped shape the celebration?
The idea of a conference has always been discussed by the Women's Leadership Council and the 120th anniversary of women at Brown was a good handle to hang this on. Since the Pembroke Center is also celebrating its 30th anniversary, it's been a nice foundation to start the year which will culminate with the conference. We will be highlighting the Pembroke archives during the conference, which will really tie the two together and provide a fitting end.
For the past 20 years, I've had the opportunity to interact with women at Brown from all generations. Through my work with the Pembroke Center I've even been able to interact a little with the academic side. I was one of the first members of the Women's Leadership Council, and one of the reasons I joined was to see if their goals would be different from the Pembroke Center. Since I joined the Council, I've learned a lot about philanthropy. When women give to an organization, they give of their money and also of their time. They give to be able to help.
The Women's Leadership Council's mentoring program [The Women's Launch Pad] provides women the ability to be actively involved with a student who needs a role model. It gives them a way to really help the University, but often they find that as a mentor they are learning as much as their mentee. Not many places offer an opportunity like that.
As far as what the celebration means to me, when I was accepted into Pembroke the schools [Brown and Pembroke] merged fully by the end of my first year, so gender was not really an issue that I experienced or saw. It wasn't until I had a daughter that I became more introspective about what it means to be a woman in today's world. Generations of women need to learn from each other. This is what the Pembroke Center and the Women's Leadership Council have in common and we will bring this concept to the conference.
"I think it is magical when women come together, especially from different generations."
Why is the conference and preserving the legacy of women at Brown important?
I think we forget how shaped we are by history. It's about legacy more than past: both where we come from and the responsibilities that we have from that. Brown women have leadership positions throughout all industries and the conference is an opportunity to showcase our alumnae and be able to network, especially with our younger alums. We have designed panels around young alums to allow them to interact with older alums from different industries and hopefully this sharing of advice and ideas might resonate with them and lead to the exponential growth of future endeavors.
Women open up around other women differently than they do around men, and this is part of what we want to capture. I hosted a technology panel at my house with women from Google, Pixar, and other companies. At this gathering women spoke frankly about the real world and their jobs. This is the kind of experience that I hope will happen at the conference.
What can we expect to see at the conference in May? What part of the celebration are you most looking forward to?
This conference is a celebration of women and it is recognition of all that we have created here. An important aspect of the conference is to celebrate the achievements and wisdom that President Simmons has shared with Brown. People want a conference that will be both inspiring and life changing. We want people to leave the conference with a deeper knowledge of the history of women at Brown and an appreciation for what Brown women are doing in the world.
The conference is designed to be intergenerational. All of the panels will feature alumnae and we have a fabulous list of names to draw from! We will also have lectures by key faculty to provide alums with a unique opportunity to interact with the academic side of Brown. Everyone will get something different out of it. Attendees can expect to find topics that really focus on diverse aspects of life and career. One key area will be focused on lifestyle issues – balancing marriage, career, and children. We will also plan to feature Brown alumnae in the entertainment industry.
As for what I am looking forward to personally, I'm a history buff. I'm interested in seeing our archives come to life with a performance based on the collection of historical documents we have from women who attended Brown. Additionally, I think it is magical when women come together, especially from different generations. As a mentor talking to today's generation of women, I see that women often don't want to talk about life balance. Women today want to be able to do it all without thinking about the compromises that have to be made along the way. I think it will be interesting to hear from the different generations at the conference because I think we can learn from each other. I am looking forward to feeling the awesome collective energy.