The Femi-Nova Mystique

A Nova Southeastern University club struggles to bring a backward student body up-to-date

Nova Southeastern University is a school that time forgot.

The school has no gay-straight alliance. Take Back the Night, the antiviolence group that is standard fare on most college campuses, is absent. The Fort Lauderdale college even lacks a vibrant underground culture of hemp pants­ wearing, sweatshop-protesting kids. Instead most undergraduate women wear makeup, many squeeze into tight clothes, some bleach their hair, and a few starve themselves. Men have two options: the hip, mesh-shorts, athletic look or a button-down shirt tucked into Abercrombie & Fitch khakis.

But at least a handful of students have had enough. Last September senior Alisonn Gardner approached professors Kate Waites and Suzanne Ferriss with the idea of creating Social Action, Social Awareness (SASA), a club that would lead students to question gender roles and break from the ethos of sheltered, middle-class suburbia. SASA includes some women who were activists before they enrolled at Nova and others whose world views changed after they joined the club or took a gender-studies class.

Noelle Barrera, professor Kate Waites, Alisonn Gardner, and Grace Garza are introducing feminism to a student body that is steeped in conservatism
Joshua Prezant
Noelle Barrera, professor Kate Waites, Alisonn Gardner, and Grace Garza are introducing feminism to a student body that is steeped in conservatism

A core group of women, frustrated by the rigid gender roles that dominate undergraduate life, drafted SASA's constitution: Lisa Robinson, a deeply Christian, 26-year-old sophomore; Grace Garza, a levelheaded senior with long black hair who is the club's new president; and Liz Heard, a spunky senior with pink-tinted hair, pierced lips, and a tattoo on her thigh that is an intricate rendition of Sally from Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas. Their ringleader, Gardner, is a hip, articulate lesbian with short blond hair and librarian-style glasses.

SASA's origins are in Nova's small but vital gender-studies program. In 1989, 17 years after Gloria Steinem founded Ms. magazine, Waites and a few other professors started a women's-studies program. Since then it has morphed into a gender-studies minor that offers between two and four classes per semester, each with 15 to 30 students. While Nova's program receives no extra funding for speakers and events, Florida Atlantic University, Florida International University, and the University of Miami have similar curricula and funded, intellectually oriented women's centers.

Despite Nova's neglect, Waites and Ferriss have made their mark. In a recent evening gender-studies class, Alison Paranio, wearing jeans and Adidas sneakers, tells Waites and about 15 other students how the class has changed her take on chivalry. "All of those attitudes are still so rooted in us," she relates, her dark ponytail streaked with blond. "Someone says "Get in the back seat,' and I'm like, "What? I'm female.' Someone doesn't open the door for me, and I think, How rude! But now I think, Well, I'm smaller. Maybe it makes sense for me to sit in back. These classes have infiltrated my life so much."

When Paranio arrived at Nova three years ago from Cooper City High School, she thought gender studies was a cult of ultramilitant women who had turned their loathing of men into an academic discipline. When no other elective fit into her schedule, however, she begrudgingly ended up in a class on women in film. "I hated it. I thought it was a bunch of bullshit," she says. "There was no way I was going to believe that, because an actress was wearing dangly earrings, she had penis envy." The next semester she took another gender-studies course and found, much to her surprise, that it made sense. "I modeled in high school," she adds. "You get used to being treated like an idiot and relying on being pretty for your self-worth."

She is taking her fifth gender-studies class now. "The classes have done a lot to change the way I see myself," she says. Yet she cannot bring herself to say she is a feminist. "It's hard to get yourself to say that," she continues, admitting that she can't get herself to dislike it when men open doors for her.

Waites, whose revelations about feminism came in the early '80s when she was a doctoral student in English literature at the University of Nebraska, has watched many students -- both men and women -- enter her class arrogant and ignorant but leave forever changed.

There is a difference between the "Aha!" experience Waites observes in gender-studies classes and the usual intellectual awakenings she sees in other classes. While literature, philosophy, and other classes at Nova can extend students' intellectual boundaries, gender studies reframe the picture entirely. "I can't tell you the number of students who come up to me and say, "It's not the same for me anymore,' or "This is mind-altering,'" she says. "What an honor to be in that situation. I walk a fine line, challenging people's preconceptions and world views."

Some of the most interesting transformations are those experienced by men. Waites vividly remembers a baseball player whom she taught a few years ago. "I don't know why he took the class," she says, speculating that it may have been to meet women. "He ended up being one of the most altered people in the class. He said, "I never realized I look at women that way.' He said he saw himself completely differently."

But only a fraction of undergraduates take gender studies, so Gardner and the other founding mothers of SASA hope to touch the rest of the student body. "I wanted to start a gay organization, but [students and professors] told me that would be too extreme for this school," Gardner, who is now applying to medical schools, says. "We chose to ease into it." Though Gardner wanted to send a shock wave of progressive thought through the student body, others favored a less radical approach. The group's new president, Grace Garza, maintains a plodding optimism as she tells Gardner she wouldn't have joined the club had it been a gay-straight alliance.

Last semester the group held a few coffeehouse forums to discuss sexuality and gender. They helped assemble an AIDS quilt, hosted Socratic discussions, and distributed a survey to assess the campus' most significant social problems (choices included stereotyping and sexual orientation). The organization is now analyzing the data, and though Gardner hasn't come up with official results, just leafing through the responses has made her realize how much the campus needs SASA.

Liz Heard quickly offers several horror stories about people who didn't know the meaning of sexual orientation or couldn't comprehend the instructions. She has, however, been encouraged by the transformations she has witnessed when Waites teaches: "People change. They think, Wow, I don't have to be an object."

Indeed, on a recent day in Waites' gender-studies class, the transformation process was visible. Students became meticulous film critics reviewing their own lives. "When I was home -- my parents live up north now -- I woke up early one morning and saw my mom shoveling snow," one student says. "It kind of bothered me my dad wasn't there instead. And then I wondered --" A chorus of voices finishes her sentence: "... if you would feel the same way if it was your father."

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