Women of Western: 3 female professors on what led them to WKU

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Debra Murray

March is Women’s History Month, a time for female professors to reflect on the motivations and challenges that lead to their careers at WKU.

According to the 2020 Factbook, 53% of all WKU employees are women — 681 of 1,052 WKU faculty.

Laura McGee

Laura McGee is a German language professor and serves as principal investigator of the Chinese Flagship program. She is highly proficient in German and understands Spanish and French. During high school, she studied French and Latin before becoming a foreign exchange student.

“I wanted to see more of the world,” McGee said. “Instead of having 12th grade in my same high school, I applied to be a high school exchange student. I originally wanted to go to France, however, the organization that accepted me didn’t have more host families in France available, and I ended up going to Germany for a year. I really set my mind to immersing myself in the language that I graduated with good skills in German and a real love of Germany.”

McGee still keeps in touch with her host family from her year in Germany. She said she travels with her German host sister she met in college.

“I have some contacts with members of that original host family I have seen in recent years,” McGee said. “In college, I did another exchange and did a whole junior year abroad in college. I had a wonderful host family again, and have contact with them even in recent years.”

McGee graduated with a degree in German from a liberal arts college. After college, her first job was working at a newspaper.

“I was able to use my liberal arts background which means good at writing good persuasion, and just creativity and problem- solving,” McGee said. “All of those things [were used] to write a design resume, and the second-largest newspaper in Salt Lake City hired me because I could present myself well enough for what they wanted.”

McGee served as principal investigator of the Chinese flagship program while she was head of Modern Languages from 2009 to 2020. She said there are only a dozen or so flagship programs in the U.S., so this program makes WKU stand out.

“During that time period, the Chinese flagship was moved into modern languages,” McGee said. “I became the principal investigator, which means you are the top individual who has responsibility for that grant. I help provide oversight and support through regular work with the faculty who run the flagship.”

McGee said she has developed several lifelong friendships during her time traveling.

“I have a really close relationship with my dad, and with my siblings, and with other members of my family,” McGee said. “I also just really value some of the friendships that I have, both here and abroad, and since I came to WKU in particular, I have been able to travel to Germany almost every summer, and I have strong friendships there that have been important for me in my life over a very long period of time — I mean decades. So some of the people there are like family for me as well.”

Nahid Gani

Nahid Gani is an associate professor of geology. Gani said teaching was always a passion for her.

“I actually had two types of passion when I was itching to become a medical doctor,” Gani said. “So that was one of the passions that I really wanted to do. And then to become a university teacher, so many family members are teacher educators.”

Gani studied for her undergraduate degree in Bangladesh where she is originally from. To go to college in Bangladesh, a person has to take an admission test, where their score allows them to decide what subject to study.

“We have to do a really extensive admission test to get into that any university in Bangladesh,” Gani said. “My choices were different because I wanted to study pharmacy, or microbiology, or biochemistry, and then I did not get it because my score was not that high. So then I actually got geology.”

Gani moved to the U.S to pursue her doctorate in geology.

“I have this ambition that I want to be a university professor someday,” Gani said. “So I had this ambition like I want to do a Ph.D. So we did not have a Ph.D. [program]. So that’s the beginning like I was applying to different universities in the U.S. and in Canada. Then I got admitted to the University of Texas at Dallas. So I came to Texas first here, and I completed my Ph.D. in geology successfully within the year that was assigned to me.”

Geology is a male-dominated field, which Gani said she can see as a woman who studied geology. “It was a lot of challenge to do

the fieldwork, particularly if you don’t have a female advisor,” Gani said. “You always have to have some sort of challenges.”

Since geology is a field focused on going and obtaining research and spending time in the lab, women can be deterred from wanting to pursue it.

“It is field-dominated, lab- oriented work,” Gani said. “I mean the most of the decision was made previously by the males that the women out in the field cannot do those hours [so] they can collect data. It can be a hassle. In my country, I have my masters and then one of the faculty members said, ‘No, you cannot do that field- oriented research.’”

When Gani first started at WKU, she had to learn how to balance taking care of her children and her career.

“When you become a faculty member and then if you have kids, that’s a different kind of challenge you have to face when I came here at WKU,” Gani said. “My husband was commuting, he was in New Orleans, and I was here with the kids. I was in a tenure track position, so it was challenging for me to actually do this.”

Helen Sterk

Helen Sterk is the head of the communication department and a professor. Sterk got her start teaching high school after graduating from college.

“I taught from high school for three years, that was my first job out of college, and I enjoyed teaching,” Sterk said. “I enjoyed working with ideas with students. I didn’t really enjoy all of the work that went along with teaching high school that included patrol and making sure students weren’t kissing in the hallways and that sort of thing. And I thought I would rather teach at the college level. So, I started working on my master’s degree and absolutely fell in love with learning.”

Sterk graduated college in 1974 and said during that time, the only jobs women did were becoming a secretary, nurse, or elementary school teacher, but none of those were appealing to her.

“When I started my master’s work I thought, ‘I love learning,’” Sterk said. “I love researching. I love making sense of things and trying to figure out why something is happening. So it’s like I came to life in my master’s program, and it was right here at WKU.”

After graduating with her master’s from WKU, she went to the University of Iowa for her doctorate.

“My husband had gone to the University of Iowa and started his Ph.D. program and I thought, ‘Well, I guess I will too.’ Of course, that’s kind of the way life went for women. You would go where your husband went. And I think those days are kind of in the rearview mirror.”

Sterk has a background in theatre and still watches community theatre in Bowling Green.

“I actually loved theatre more, but when I went to Iowa and looked into their theater program, they had not graduated a Ph.D. candidate in theater for over 10 years,” she said. “However, it is a super productive place for communications.”

Sterk participated in theater in high school as an actress but also helped backstage for some productions. She met her husband in her high school theatre.

“I was running lights for a show,” Sterk said. “It was called Blood Wedding. And [my husband] played a character that was called the moon, and he was completely covered in silver body paint, he was a freshman, I was a junior. So I just sort of, you know, angled my way into his life.”

Sterk is beginning the retirement process. June 30 is her last day as department head, she will be on leave in the fall and teaching next spring then officially retire after that semester ends. She said she plans to spend her retirement with her family and friends, then possibly develop higher education in Pakistan.

“My husband died 16 years ago, so I’m a single person,” Sterk said. “I can make choices in my life.I have an opportunity to be on a grant to develop women’s leadership in higher education in Pakistan. If that grant comes through I’ll be spending two years develop- ing leadership skills, communication skills, and negotiation skills in women who are department heads or deans in universities in Pakistan. What a grand adventure.”

Debra Murray can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @debramurrayy