Becca Swanson remembers the sign that she was meant to get involved; it was hanging in a bathroom stall.
Swanson, the Associated Students Inc. chief of staff, was honored as the 2006 Cal Poly Woman of the Year, a feat that would not have been possible had the Cal Poly Women’s Awareness program not been advertising in local restrooms. She was compelled to attend the advertised meeting and has been hooked ever since.
Though the award was bestowed to a woman who devoted countless hours and efforts toward the betterment of all women, it doesn’t faze her in the least.
“I feel weird about this whole thing,” Swanson said. “I’m surrounded by all these people who are doing so much more.”
She was nominated for the award by ASI President Tylor Middlestadt, who selected her for the position of chief of staff last spring. Contrary to previous ASI presidents, he had decided to allow students to apply for the chief of staff position, rather than nominate someone he knew.
“I wanted anyone who was qualified to have a chance,” he said. “I was choosing the best candidate and not just picking one of my good friends.”
Middlestadt had known of Swanson’s work with the Women’s Center and was excited when she applied. Now he is very satisfied with his decision.
“Becca has done much more than I ever expected,” he said, referring to her as “an outstanding colleague to work with” who “has built a strong foundation for ASI in the future and (helped in) bringing it back to the students.”
As chief of staff, Swanson manages the ASI Executive Staff, which is composed of nearly 25 volunteers; executes the ASI president’s goals; and oversees the budget and different projects. While she holds her head high in an office filled with men, it wasn’t always easy for her.
“It was a challenge to sit at the table with (Middlestadt; Joe Vaccaro, board of directors chair; and Mike Motroni, University Union Advisory Board chair),” she said, noting that the three had been involved in ASI for years while it was only her first year in Cal Poly’s student government.
“When I first came to the position I was scared to death – (but then) I thought I’d bring the outside view,” she said. “I love the people I work with and the opportunities we’ve been given.”
It was her colleagues at the Women’s Center, where she worked for the three years prior to her involvement in ASI, who encouraged her to apply for the chief of staff position. This year, she has enjoyed being a participant in the center’s events like the Run to Remember, but she hasn’t forgotten the ethics that her old stomping grounds instilled in her.
It was primarily her work in the Women’s Center – which included the celebration of women and providing awareness about sexual assault and eating disorders – that motivated her to do a minor in women’s studies.
“I was shocked at how much there is to do in the women’s movement,” she said. “I wasn’t even aware of the issues.”
The difference in pay for men and women, the lack of a female president, the sexual assaults of solely women – these are just some of the issues that concern Swanson. But what scares her more is the lack of action being taken against these issues.
“Women before us had something to fight for – now it’s almost silent,” she said. “That’s scary that we’re going to live in the U.S. and have to deal with that.”
For example, many women are reluctant to call themselves feminists because they believe it has a radical connotation, but in reality a feminist is simply a person – male or female – who wants equal rights for men and women, she said.
Not only did she seek to inform herself about the issues through women’s studies, but she went out into the community and took direct action. She volunteers at the Sexual Assault Recovery Prevention center, answering calls on the 24-hour crisis line, and lends her time and an arm to women as an escort for Planned Parenthood on the days they perform abortions.
Though Planned Parenthood always has locals protesting abortions, Swanson said that “it’s never bad enough where you want to not continue.” What is hard for her to witness is all the women who drive into the clinic, only to see the protesters and turn away from help.
“I really need to reach out,” she said about situations like this. “That’s all it takes.”
It was Swanson’s hard work in so many different organizations that earned her the Woman of the Year award, said Mary Armstrong, a women’s studies and English professor at Cal Poly. Armstrong was asked to serve on the committee that elected Swanson, whom she was already familiar with as a professor.
“What really distinguished her from an impressive group was the breadth and depth of her commitment,” Armstrong said. “It’s a pleasure to see what she can do and it’s a pleasure to know her.”
For Swanson, it’s all too easy to get involved and she cited the moments where she and a team are cleaning up after an event that takes months of planning as the best part of getting involved.
“She’s terrific at teamwork and is eager to share the glory – she’s a very pleasant person and she’ll go very far in life I’m sure because she has those talents,” Armstrong said.
After she graduates in June, Swanson wants to attend graduate school and get a master’s degree in public administration, in the hopes of one day working for a large, nonprofit feminist organization.
Judging by the shirt that hangs in her office proclaiming “This is what a feminist looks like,” she is already on her way to further the celebration of women and to only be celebrated by them in return.