March, designated to Women’s History Month, celebrates the achievements, struggles, and contributions of the women of the past and present. In this feature, I had the privilege of interviewing 2002 DePauw graduate Nicole Pacino, an author, traveler, teacher, activist, and director. She shares with me her story and her aspirations for the next generation of women. 

Tell me about your time at DePauw! 

There’s so much to tell! I look back on my time at DePauw so fondly. I made lifelong friends, met my husband, learned a great deal, found out what mattered to me, and had amazing experiential learning opportunities. I got started on a career path I didn’t even know I wanted. 

I had no idea what to expect when I arrived at DePauw in 1998. I didn’t know anyone when I arrived. Within a week I had made friends, some of whom remain my closest friends to this day. I also didn’t know what I wanted to study; I came in as a sociology major because I had enjoyed those classes in high school. I was broadly curious but also directionless. So, I just took classes to see what was out there, and eventually, I found my way to a path that made sense to me. I had 3 different majors while I was there – sociology, geology, and conflict studies, and I also graduated with minors in women’s studies and geology. 

I had two formative intellectual moments while at DePauw: taking “Introduction to Conflict Studies” with Dr. Glen Kuecker and “Introduction to Women’s Studies” with Dr. Meryl Altman. They introduced me to a way of thinking about topics related to justice and equity that shaped my worldview and helped me to develop a language to describe things I had always known but was unable to explain. Those two individuals had the single biggest impact on my educational choices and subsequent career trajectory. 

While at DePauw I had many opportunities to travel related to my education. I went to Hawaii on a geology Winter Term trip, I studied abroad in Copenhagen for a semester, and I went to Ecuador as part of a solidarity/consciousness-raising trip.

All of these experiences ultimately led me to be Director of the Russell J. Compton Peace and Justice Center for a year after I graduated in 2002. 

Tell me about your successes after DePauw. 

There have been many! Professionally, I completed an M.A. in Latin American and Iberian Studies in 2007, and a Ph.D. in Latin American history with a doctoral emphasis in Feminist Studies in 2013, all from the University of California, Santa Barbara. I got a tenure-track job at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, and I got tenure in 2019. I’ve published numerous articles, book chapters, and book reviews, been interviewed about my research, and won awards for my teaching and research. I have had the great pleasure of traveling internationally for research and conferences, including Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Puerto Rico, Spain, and Trinidad. I am also now the Director of Interdisciplinary Studies at UAH and am creating an interdisciplinary major program for undergraduates. 

What does Women's History Month mean to you?

I think it’s just a time to celebrate women, their experiences, and their accomplishments. The work women do and the contributions they make to society have been so overlooked, that it’s a good time to stop and remind ourselves that half the world’s population has made fundamental contributions to all aspects of life. 

It’s also worth pointing out that Women’s History Month is a pretty recent invention, starting in the 1980s. It’s a direct outgrowth of the gains of Second Wave Feminism, which fought for many things, including economic independence, equal treatment in the workforce, an end to sexual assault and harassment, reproductive rights, and broader social recognition. So it’s also a good time to reflect on how far we’ve come and what kind of work still needs to be done in the pursuit of gender equality. 

Are there any particular women who have inspired you?

My mom was my first inspiration. She was a Baby Boomer and was part of the first generation where women went to college and had careers in sizable numbers. She got an M.A. in social work and was very committed to her profession while also balancing a family. She also did a lot of volunteer work, mostly for organizations that worked to benefit women and children. She committed her entire life to trying to make life better for kids, and she was also a committed feminist. I’m so thankful to have grown up in a household where feminism was an everyday principle – my mom modeled it daily in her personal and professional life. 

Honestly, inspiration is all around us. It comes in the form of young women who gain an international platform and use it to speak loudly on issues (think Malala Yousafzai or Greta Thunberg). But it also comes from the everyday struggles and successes of people around us – the student who is also a single mother trying to navigate life, the immigrant woman working three jobs to provide for her family, and even the person working the cash register who provides a smile and a laugh just when you need it most. 

I’m in awe of the countless women I will never know who often put themselves in harm’s way in the pursuit of justice and all the regular people out there just trying to make the world a better place one day at a time even with no recognition. 

What advice would you give women starting life after college?

One main piece of advice: decide for yourself what your priorities and goals are, and follow them. These goals will look different for everyone and will change over time. Try to avoid being pushed into doing something that distracts you from your goals by societal or family pressures – don’t get married or start a family when you aren’t ready because you think so, or don’t put off getting married or starting a family if that is what your priority is. Make your own choices thoughtfully and stand by them. 

Just be you. Don’t try to be someone you are not because you think you should, or because other people are that way. Especially when you are in your 20s, you have immense freedom to do all kinds of things, so take advantage of it. Travel, experiment, fail at something, try again, and learn from the process. 

What actions do you think individuals, organizations, and society can take to continue advancing women's rights and opportunities in the workforce?

We need to continue having serious conversations about the things that contribute to workplace inequality, like the gender pay gap, lack of guaranteed parental leave, access to reproductive rights, maternal health care, including pre-and post-natal care, and the way that having children negatively impacts women’s careers but not men’s. We also need to be serious about building a culture that supports a healthy work-life balance, which goes way beyond opting not to check email over the weekend and needs to focus on things like a living wage, access to health care, etc. (which are all women’s as well as human rights issues). We also need to recognize the way other factors constrain women’s opportunities, like race and class.

It would be great to see businesses, universities, and organizations take these things seriously, rather than paying lip service to these issues, by acknowledging women’s contributions and structural impediments to their advancement (which are important!), advocating for social change and policies that protect and promote women in the workforce. Bring women to the table to listen to them, not just to check a box or fill a quota. Implement parental leave policies. Provide health care and paid time off to deal with family issues. Publish all salaries so people can see if they are fairly compensated for their labor. Lobby for universal health care. All of these things would help. 

Looking forward, what are your hopes and aspirations for the next generation of women entering the workforce, particularly those following in your footsteps?

Working with students gives me so much hope! I find my students to mostly be so curious, thoughtful, and genuinely concerned about the world around them. They are asking important questions and they know they face an uncertain future with tremendous challenges. I just try to provide them with the intellectual tools and the self-confidence to go forth. The conversations around gender equality have changed so significantly since I was in college, in the best way! I think the next generation will be well-equipped with the critical thinking skills to address a range of issues from an intersectional perspective. I hope they can shatter the remaining glass ceilings (ahem, female president). Still, most importantly, I hope they want not just to be in charge of the current political and economic system, but to radically re-envision a society that is more equitable and accessible for all. 

Any advice for current DePauw students?

Just a word of encouragement to all the current DePauw students: Take classes while in college that you never knew you had an interest in. Seek out strange opportunities. Stay up late at night having conversations about ideas. Push yourself out of your comfort zone. Don’t assume you are on a predetermined path. You never know what will happen if you open unusual doors or where you might end up as a result.