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Recognizing the Importance of Women Is Always in Season

June 2, 2021

By Marnie O’Malley

In March, President Maureen Hoyler reflected on what Women’s History Month means for the women in her life, and herself as an advocate for low-income and first-generation students.

Maureen has been with the Council for Opportunity in Education since the organization began in 1981. At its 40th anniversary and during Women’s History Month, she recognized the women that helped make COE possible, specifically Shirley Chisolm, the first African American woman in Congress and former vice chair of the House Democratic Caucus, and Sari Byerly, Assistant Vice President of Student Affairs at Idaho State University.

Both women showed exemplary commitment and passion, she says, for advocating for disadvantaged students in higher education. Shirley Chisolm’s legacy reminds Maureen that “everything is political—school, professional life and churches” and if you want to make things better you must be willing to be political. Sari Byerly, struggled to pave her way as a first-generation TRIO student but became Chair of the Board of Directors at COE.

Among Maureen’s role models are Kamala Harris, Harriet Tubman, and Dorothy Day. Harris, the first female Asian and African American Vice President, “is a role model to us all,” Maureen states. Maureen recently read a book with her grandson about Tubman’s historic and consequential legacy of courageous leadership and advocacy for slaves both before and during the Civil War. Day fought as a social justice activist from the 1930s and is famously known for establishing Catholic Worker communities committed to fighting for peace, for workers and for the poor.

Maureen also discussed the ongoing influence of her Marquette University roommate Congresswoman Gwen Moore, and Moore’s inspirational persistence, character and ability to connect to her constituents in Milwaukee. Maureen recalled a time when Moore, who was a single mother on welfare when she was at Marquette, considered dropping out of college. Maureen was a mentor for TRIO’s Student Support Services program and went with Dr. Arnold Mitchem, their program director, to Moore’s home. After knocking at her door, they eventually convinced Moore to return to Marquette. This experience helped Maureen realize that “people's potential doesn’t reveal itself on your schedule, it reveals itself on their schedule and the obstacles they face are huge and the self-doubt they face is huge.”

As a female leader, Maureen believes the ultimate challenge for her generation is to “leave the next generation better off than before” — helping to create more opportunities, more equity, and more compassion. She recognizes the progress and impact that women have made throughout her lifetime and also notes the work ahead for true equality. While research increasingly recognizes women’s struggle to balance professional and family life, the voices of more privileged woman are louder and burdens fall disproportionately on low and working class women, Maureen says, adding that many women do not necessarily receive adequate support in their pursuit of opportunities. “Therefore, it is especially important to encourage young women in these times,” she says.

“Never hesitate to lead and always lead with conviction” are two pieces of advice Maureen gives to the women following in her footsteps. Try hard to listen, share, credit, and delegate. She explains, “you don’t always have to be the most visible person to be the leader.”

When asked about a plaque in the COE conference room that reads “TRIO takes care of other people’s children,” Maureen says that her predecessor Dr. Mitchem believed “TRIO’s responsibility was to provide each of its students what middle-class families are empowered to provide for their children.” She explains that TRIO educators must be professionally and personally involved with their students. Students are the foundation and guiding force in COE’s persistent advocacy and professional development efforts.