This article originally appeared in the spring print edition of proFmagazine featuring University of Oklahoma campus women. To purchase a digital copy of the spring OU edition, click here.
In October of 2016, I walked into a room at the Oklahoma Memorial Union (on the University of Oklahoma campus), where a group of campus women was assembling. Once inside, we were asked to grab some breakfast, drop our titles and meet new people. This was the first meeting of THRIVE, a gathering for OU women. Since that first breakfast, many other meetings have taken place and the list of invitees has grown to over 500. The purpose of the group is to provide a space for campus women to gather for a shared experience in which they learn from one another and leave feeling encouraged. At the helm of this endeavor is the fearless and charismatic OU Associate Dean of Students, Kristen Partridge – “KP,” as most know her. I recently had the opportunity to sit down with her to reflect upon the creation, growth and future of THRIVE.
proF: Where did the idea for THRIVE come from?
KP: What would become THRIVE was actually started by my predecessor Susan Sasso, who developed a Student Affairs mentoring program for women. It was mainly designed for Student Life staff and seemed set up to be instructive for professional development and growth. And I loved it! This was Susan’s vibe: she is a woman’s woman and always sought to champion women on campus. She was great, [and] as she was organizing these sessions, she invited people – myself included – into her process. Unfortunately, as she and Student Life in general took on additional responsibilities and projects, some of the student affairs mentoring program activities were limited as other priorities necessarily took more and more time.
When I took this position, Dean of Students Clarke Stroud was talking to me about my responsibilities and mentioned that this was something that he would like revived, giving me the opportunity to take Susan’s
vison and grow it. And anyone that knows me knows that I am an “includer,” so the very first question I
asked [was] if I could open it to everybody. I remembered thinking when I was part of Susan’s group that I had a lot of women friends across campus that would enjoy what we were doing. So, I just started making a list of people that I thought might want to join. We asked some women for their input, we did some assessment of what a revived program might look like and at that point it kind of became a snowball rolling down a hill. There was a great deal of enthusiasm for what this could be.
When we started our first session, we sent out the invite to the list we had compiled – ollie ollie oxen free. And I think we had nearly 100 women show up for that first session. I knew from the energy in the room – the vibe in the room – that we were really tapping into something that was critical. It was a supportive environment where women could come and not feel talked down to or patronized or judged. Ultimately, we just knew that very first session that people – women – want to come together with great women. And now we have about 500 names on the invite list. Of course, not all come, but it’s great because there aren’t many venues that would fit that many people, and we are working on a shoestring budget.
proF: I noticed at your very first session that you asked folks to drop their titles. What was the goal in specifically asking people to not include their titles?
KP: Yes, we decided that from the beginning. That was so that people didn’t turn it into a networking experience. I think there is some natural networking that will happen, but we wanted it to feel more organic. We wanted women to come and meet women and it not be about who they are on campus that made you want to be connected to them, but who they were as people. And we are still a “no-title” zone.
proF: Every month or so, you invite women in to give presentations or share their stories. What are some of the session topics that guests have focused on?
KP: We have addressed all sorts of topics. My friend from Health Sciences came and talked about the “power of the pause,” about what pausing does before making a decision, before you even make a response. How important it is to pause in your life for health and wellness. Another woman, from Student Life, gave a presentation on friendship: about how there are different types of friendships and different seasons of friendship as well as the value of intergenerational friendships and how those friendships have really changed her trajectory. For example, she plays tennis every week with a group of 75-year-old women, and she is learning so much from them. Another guest, a former student-athlete who works with student-athletes, talked about how exercise has influenced her life. A dean came and gave a heartfelt talk about how she dealt with challenges to get where she is. And I am so thankful for that presentation, because participants learned that this was going to be real; this wasn’t going to be a candy-coated talk about what one should aspire for, it wasn’t going to be some kind of rosy discussion that feels like rainbows above you kind of experience. It was going to be an authentic experience.
That is the only request I really ask of the speakers – talk about something that makes you feel like you are thriving in life. I’ve enjoyed every speaker for their own reasons, and I think that’s really defined what this was going to be. I am so grateful to all of our speakers. They are really sharing who they are [and] what makes them feel like they are thriving in life, but also where they wish they could be thriving and what steps they are taking to do that.
proF: Why is it important that this be a group of women (though really, anyone can join)?
KP: When you talk about professional development, it might be a little clichéd. I think people have an idea in their minds. Maybe it’s time management or you are learning how to speak in public, and those are incredibly important leadership skills. But there is something about being in a room full of women, knowing that all of those women have at least one thing in common: we all want to work with college students. And I don’t think there are many avenues for women to develop relationships. I think for a lot of men, they can go out and play a round of golf, and all of the sudden they have a connection. But we don’t generally have that opportunity. And I don’t want to stereotype women and say, of course women are relationship builders, but I do think that women are social connectors on this campus and we are everywhere. We are in every department and making important decisions, and yet there isn’t really anything available on campus that just nurtures that opportunity to sit still for a second and to listen to somebody else who is being real and can encourage you. You are in a room full of people that maybe can understand the societal expectations that exist for women. And to do that together, I think, is really special.
proF: So far, none of the topics covered are what one might consider “political.” Has this been done intentionally?
KP: Actually, I haven’t really addressed what we are going to talk about because I have left it up to the presenters themselves to determine the topics. In asking the presenters to tell their stories and share their experiences, we haven’t made a decision to go in one direction or not to go in a direction. As a guideline for speakers, though, I have asked them to think about how people can leave feeling better about whatever it is. So, I don’t know, maybe there is a tendency by speakers to avoid certain topics because they don’t necessarily want to alienate anyone or polarize the room. And I don’t know as time goes by where things will go.
I do think that in general, our goal isn’t to rally around a political cause; it’s to figure out the essential life lessons that we can embrace together and take the time together that we wouldn’t take on our own to sit and be reflective. To sit and be grateful, or to sit and be contemplative about. I think that is why it has been so popular. There is a sentiment that when you leave you feel encouraged and hopefully uplifted, versus feeling burdened or less than. I could see it going in a million different directions. I just hope that each of our sessions ends on a positive note, so that when you leave the session, you feel lighter. To feel that there is strength in numbers and safety in this idea that you are not alone. Isolation, in my opinion, takes you out of a place where you thrive. That’s the idea. Bringing everyone together, letting graduate assistants come – when would they ever get a chance to spend time with these older, wiser women? It’s the idea of not being isolated that I think people feel attached to, so maybe that is why so many of our topics seem to be more inclusive.
proF: Where could this program go in the future – where would you like to see it go?
KP: I could see this almost developing out, like spin-offs. And some of this is already happening. When I started working here, I was with a cohort of young people, and many of us are still here. I sometimes take it for granted that I have these old relationships on campus. But now, working with young professionals and graduate students – who I know don’t always feel connected – I want to help. I know we already have a generational challenge with that. I’ve always wanted to find a way for organic friendships to build so that others could have that cohort-like experience that I had. So, we started something called Branch Out. This is essentially a matchmaking club of sorts – six women for six months – where women of different generations are set up and go to lunch together once a month for six months. Some groups have been more successful than others, but at the end of the day, I am just trying to find ways to help women make those connections in a healthy, non-competitive way.
proF: Is this something that could be replicated elsewhere? On other campuses?
KP: This could work anywhere. It doesn’t cost a lot of money. It’s just a matter of finding the space, the speakers and the participants. We have kind of settled on morning sessions. I just love the idea of mornings; it seems like a treat and then just starts your day off. We rotate days a bit. I realize and am thankful that women on campus are getting support from their supervisors (men and women) to come and do this. You have to understand the culture of your campus. We are fortunate that this has been embraced, by participants and by those around campus that encourage participation. That may not be the case on every campus. So maybe elsewhere, it would need to take place over the lunch hour or sometime seen as break time. THRIVE could thrive on any campus where there is an understanding of how valuable this approach is, of how valuable it is to have rested, healthy staff or faculty.
proF: Are there any moments that really stand out?
KP: Yes! So many, but one comes to mind. We really wanted to celebrate Coach Patty Gasso as our winningest female coach. Her team had just won the Softball National Championship…again. We knew she was in salary negations at that time and really working for progress for women softball coaches. We decided to throw her a surprise celebration. We invited her to come speak and to share with the group what makes her thrive, etc., and I worked with some of her assistant coaches to make this happen. She was fantastic. She was so funny, and so honest. She shared pictures of the team and stories of their experiences. And then at the end of her talk, the OU Pride Marching Band comes marching in, and everyone started cheering. And then we wheeled out a big cake. We had signs and pom-poms, and we just had this great experience. It was just the greatest moment. She was so taken aback, and asked, “Do you do this for all of your speakers?” And I said, “nope.”
We were all cheering, and in my mind, I was thinking “this is it; we are cheering each other on.” I don’t feel that the world often puts women in a position to cheer each other on. And this was so incredibly moving. That is what I hope we do. Look at me – I’m getting choked up just talking about the experience.
A surprise celebration for Coach Patty Gasso.
Kristen and the and the THRIVE organizers have created a space for campus women at a time when it is truly needed. If you are a faculty, staff member, or graduate assistant at the University of Oklahoma who would like to gather with OU women to connect, you are always welcome – just send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and ask for info. ♀