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Elisa Foster, the new director of the Penn Women’s Center. Credit: Anna Vazhaeparambil

Almost two months into her tenure, the new director of the Penn Women’s Center spoke with The Daily Pennsylvanian about her work to date and her goals for the future.

Elisa Foster was appointed the center’s permanent director on Feb. 10 following a search that started in December 2021. Foster was previously named interim director in Jan. 2022 after former director Sherisse Laud-Hammond left the position. She arrived at Penn in 2017 to serve as the Women's Center associate director. 

Located at 3643 Locust Walk, the Women's Center serves as “a central community space” for gender equity, Foster said. The center partners with students, faculty, and staff to promote gender equity while also providing confidential support to women and gender, sexual and racial minorities. 

The Women's Center, which was founded in 1973 as a response to a series of sit-ins over sexual assault on campus, turns 50 this year. Foster said that her focus since assuming the interim director position last year has been on how to celebrate this milestone. 

“It’s been both really exciting but also really challenging to take a step back and ask ‘What do the next 50 years look like?’’’ Foster said. “I want to make sure that we are addressing the needs of our community and that no one on this campus feels excluded from our space.”

The Women's Center kicked off its 50th anniversary year by installing a Women’s History Month mural in the ARCH building, Foster said. The mural features newspaper clippings from the sit-ins that resulted in the Women's Center creation and a QR code sharing the center’s oral history. There is also a space for student groups to share their contributions to gender justice.

Foster also outlined plans to update the Women's Center archive gallery, including a redesign of its look and expansion into other parts of the building. Foster also wants to add materials from the last 10 years to the gallery, which was created in celebration of the center’s 40th anniversary. 

“We want the gallery to be an interactive experience and an opportunity to highlight more of the gender equity work students have been doing on campus,” Foster said. 

Foster plans to spend the summer rebuilding the Women's Center staff by filling two associate director positions. The associate directors have the most contact and collaboration with students and community partners, so she hopes to get collective input on new initiatives the Women's Center should consider. 

“Filling the associate director roles is a really exciting time to hit the reset button, take a step back and access both what we’ve done in the past and what the best next steps for the future are,” Foster said. 

Since arriving at the Women's Center, Foster pointed to the center’s rebranding as among the work she’s most proud of. When Laud-Hammond joined the center in 2019, they worked together to “create visual imagery and materials that are updated and reflect the inclusivity that is central to our values,” she added. 

This imagery included an abstract mimosa flower, which is now a recognizable Women's Center graphic element. The flower is both a symbol for International Women’s Day and holds healing properties in traditional medicine designed to reflect the center’s values, Foster said.

“We thought [the flower] was really significant in representing what people come into the center for, which is taking a breath,” Foster said. “One of our central focuses is wellness, and we really wanted that value incorporated into our imagery.”

Foster also expressed pride in her involvement with the Penn Association for Gender Equity's launch of the GenEq Pre-Orientation program in 2021. The program is an opportunity for incoming first years to learn about gender justice and advocacy work on campus, she said. 

Foster emphasized that above all, she finds the opportunities to connect with students to be the most meaningful aspect of her work.

“What keeps me passionate is building relationships with students both on an individual level and through different organizations,” Foster said. “I love being able to watch them grow, navigate their challenges with them and celebrate their successes.”