Former Women’s Center intern reflects on how past experiences working with International Initiatives relates to current career

March 06, 2015

In honor of the beginning of International Women's Month in March at the Maxine Platzer Lynn Women's Center, Iris Magazine has interviewed a former intern in International Initiatives (now called the Women, Girls and Global Justice program) from the Center to showcase what she is doing now.

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The University of Virginia is known for producing the world’s best and brightest students, men and women who are willing to take action and make changes worldwide. Betsy Graves Henderson, a graduate of the class of 2011 and a former International Initiatives intern for the Women's Center, personifies this image. This globally conscious, fearless mindset has allowed Betsy to live in Kenya, travel throughout East Africa and work in Washington D.C. as a program officer focused on women’s leadership. She has also worked as an analyst for The Whitaker Group, an Africa-focused business development consultancy, and has recently moved to Charleston, South Carolina with her husband, where she leads business development outreach for a local tech company. FY student and Iris free-lance contributor Sammy Scheman recently got the opportunity to interview Betsy. In honor of March being International Women’s Month at the Women’s Center, Iris has decided to highlight Betsy’s experiences. Sammy Scheman: How does your current occupation relate to your past experiences as an intern for the Women’s Center? Betsy Graves Henderson: Much of my work since graduating from U.Va. has been focused on furthering women’s leadership initiatives in Africa and deepening ties in U.S.-Africa private sector trade. Serving as a Women’s Center intern (particularly as an International Initiatives intern) helped me to gain perspective on women’s issues in a local and global context, which has been tremendously helpful throughout my work. SS: Do any specific moments/times with the Women’s Center come to mind as you think of what helped to shape your college experience, career and/or identity as a young adult? BGH: I had just come back from Kenya (I’d spent each undergraduate summer in Africa), where the nation had recently adopted a new constitution. It was a monumental moment in Kenyan history, and the first time that the country had passed contemporary laws that guaranteed human rights and inclusive political leadership opportunities for women. As soon as I stepped into the classroom for the Women Peace and Justice Course (now called Front Lines of Social Change), which I took in correlation with my internship at the Women’s Center, someone began to reference many of the issues that I had seen firsthand and read about that summer. What influenced me most about this experience, however, was the sense of community and camaraderie that I felt with my fellow women’s center interns and classmates during these discussions. While we may not have agreed on every topic that came up in class over the course of the semester, we were united in our interest to approach these issues – which affected us all in one way or another - as women. SS: How would your experiences, both at U.Va. and as you have continued in your career after U.Va., have been different had you not interned at the Women’s Center? BGH: Personally, I’ve been blessed to work closely with three particularly incredible women leaders, each of whom serves in different ways and represents diverse communities around the world. To me, they are not leaders only because they are strong, intelligent women; they are leaders because they are women who encourage and empower others to act, and in so doing, are able to use their roles to bring about positive change in the communities where they serve.

When I reflect on my experiences with women’s leadership in a local and global context, I immediately think of my first mentor, the Honorable Phoebe Asiyo, who was one of the first female members of Parliament in Kenya and a goodwill ambassador for UNWomen (then UNIFEM). “Mama Phoebe,” as she is affectionately known, started one of the first grassroots women’s political leadership NGOs in Kenya (the Caucus for Women’s Leadership). As a woman leader, she has served and stood by her country from its time of independence to present, and getting to see Kenya through her eyes has had a lasting impact on my own life and career. The second remarkable woman leader whom I would count as a friend and mentor is Dr. Sharon Davie, current director of the Women’s Center at U.Va. I first met Dr. Davie in the spring of my third year at the University, and was thrilled to find that she also shared a deep love for Kenya and the history of the women’s movement there. Working with Dr. Davie and the rest of our team as an International Initiatives intern was certainly one of the highlights of my undergraduate experience, and I am grateful for Dr. Davie’s ongoing mentorship and encouragement. My perspective on women’s leadership is also drawn from the incredible experience of working for Rosa Whitaker, former U.S. Assistant Trade Representative for Africa and Founder / CEO of The Whitaker Group (TWG). Working with Rosa and the rest of the TWG team opened my eyes to U.S.-Africa trade relations and gave me an opportunity to see East Africa - a region I already loved – in an entirely new way. SS: What advice do you have for incoming interns at the Women’s Center?

BGH: For incoming interns to the Women’s Center, I would strongly encourage you to explore and act on your interests. If there is a topic or an issue that intrigues, challenges, or even frustrates you, follow it. Embrace it. Learn to understand it, and share this newfound knowledge with others. There is a wealth of information and many resources available to you both through the Women’s Center and the wonderful people who are a part of it.

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