Dr. Ilana Nash comes from a long line of strong, educated women. Perhaps the earliest example of this is her great-great aunt, who graduated from the Normal College of the City of New York in 1903. Her aunt's degree still hangs in Nash's living room as a reminder of the value of education and leadership through enfranchising those who are discriminated against.
Nash, who received her Ph.D. in American Culture Studies in 2003, continues her family’s tradition of strong and empowering leaders with her appointment to chair of Western Michigan University’s Gender and Women's Studies (GWS) department.
Nash has been part of the GWS department since 2012 and has been at WMU since 2003. She would have been in the department for even longer, but there was a problem when she first arrived on campus: the department didn’t even exist. At the time, there was only a GWS program.
“Over the course of the years, we were able to turn ourselves into a real department,” Nash explained. “We added gender to our title because the field of women’s studies is very inclusive. It pays a lot more attention now to issues, not just women’s gender identity.”
After all the faculty’s hard work put into turning the program into a full-fledged department, Nash is ready to lead with the help of an expanded yet more specialized staff.
“We have so many types of talent in our department,” Nash said. “Being a department allows us to develop those courses and offer them to the Western community.”
Another key theme within the department this year is intersectionality. Intersectionality is, as defined by Nash, “the recognition that nobody is really one thing” and “everybody has intersecting identities.”
The main theme from Nash is this: everybody is welcomed, recognized, and accepted in this department, and all subjects will be covered, not only what the course description says.
“Every Gender and Women’s Studies class is never only about gender and women,” Nash explained. “It’s always about gender and women intersecting with other identities. Every syllabus that we offer has something in there, or a lot in there, about race and gender intersecting.”
When discussing the goals of the department, two major ones brought up by Nash were continuing to function somewhat normally during the COVID-19 pandemic and navigating the odd balance between online and in person courses.
Another goal, one more specific to the GWS Department, is bringing in more majors and minors.
“We want to bring in as diverse a group of majors and minors as we can get,” Nash said. “Not just women, some of our best and most enthusiastic students have been men. We are also kind of semi-visible to LGBTQ students as a place they can come to get attention and recognition.”
A third goal for the department involves outreach. Nash explained how the lack of GWS classes in high schools lead to already confused and frightened freshmen with no idea that Gender and Women’s Studies is a major. However, once there is successful advertising and outreach, Nash feels many students will have an interest in this field of study.
“(Incoming freshmen) don't even know it’s something to study, let alone major or minor in; they don't know that it leads to all sorts or careers in pretty much every field you can think of,” Nash explained.
After all, Nash promised the department is advertising a good product: “As far as I’m concerned, and I realize I am slightly biased, the stuff we teach is the most important stuff in the world!”
There are many reasons why a GWS degree is helpful. One of the biggest benefits lies in how GWS has the ability of to open one's eyes to ignored discrimination and privilege.
“First of all, it’ll make you a better and happier person," Nash explained. "It’ll also make you a little less happy because it’ll help you see things you never saw before.”
Nash emphasized how vital GWS is in explaining our world and the little details that go unnoticed by many people.
“We routinely get feedback from students who have taken our classes that say, ‘Wow, this really opened my eyes; wow, I never looked at the world this way before; wow, this explains so much!’” Nash exclaimed.
The knowledge obtained through GWS has many practical uses in every major. Some examples given by Nash include business and advertising, non-profit work, social work, nursing, teaching, or any job that requires communication to people different from yourself.
Another topic that may garner interest in the program is the nomination of former California Senator, Kamala Harris, as the Democratic vice presidential candidate. If elected, Harris would become the first woman to hold the position.
A woman as the second most powerful political figure in the United States would not only be a dream come true for Nash, but a major self image boost to women all over the country she feels.
“You know, there’s an expression: you can’t be what you can’t see,” Nash said. “We have a problem in this country of not having women in positions of real power. Women in leadership is still something the world has trouble with.”