Role Models: T-Bird Women Who Have Inspired Me

By Lauren Herber, Editor-in-Chief

A few weeks ago, I sat around a crackling campfire on a chilly Flagstaff evening with a group of my T-bird friends. We were all celebrating the start of our final semester at Thunderbird and reminiscing on days gone by. We talked about short-lived crushes, favorite classes, spontaneous trips, and beloved professors. We joked about how we remembered the Aussie pies case from Rankine’s accounting class, complained about how difficult Moffett’s finance class was (at least for me), and raved about Ramaswamy’s energetic teaching style and his impeccable memory. While I have a plethora of happy memories from the classes I’ve taken during my time at Thunderbird, one somewhat disconcerting fact dawned on me during our conversation: I will graduate without ever having had a female professor at Thunderbird.

Don’t get me wrong: my professors here have been wonderful. They have pushed me to stretch myself and prepared me well for my career. I will note, however, that all of the courses required for my degree are taught by male professors. Although I did have a couple of opportunities to take electives taught by women, they either weren’t in my field of study or conflicted with another class I needed to take. Let me reiterate the outstanding quality of the Thunderbird professors that I have had; but having female mentors and role models in a field that’s still male-dominated is just as important as having a high-quality education.

As a young female professional, I’ve written quite a bit about what it’s like to be a woman in the world of business and some of the challenges that I have faced. As I’ve grown as a professional, and especially as I prepare to begin my career with Hilti in an industry that’s still highly male-dominated, I’ve realized that the guidance and support that I’ve gotten from successful businesswomen has been invaluable. With my graduation date looming ever closer, I’ve been prone to periods of nostalgia and reflection, and I wanted to take this opportunity to highlight some of the T-bird women that have inspired me during the past few years.

Alina at Regional Night. Courtesy Thunderbird
Alina at Regional Night. Courtesy Thunderbird

Alina Buzgar (’16) taught me that kindness is strength, not weakness. I met Alina through Das Tor—she was my editor-in-chief during my first two semesters at Thunderbird. From the beginning, I was amazed by her. She was the first person who I felt ever really saw me—the real me—and genuinely cared about me. Alina made me feel like an important part of the Thunderbird family, and I’m not the only one. She gave her undivided attention and support to anyone that she came across; she always—and I mean always—went out of her way to help anyone that needed it, and she was genuinely happy to do so. I watched Alina treat everyone that she knew with professionalism and class, even the people that were rude or disrespectful to her. She had something good to say about everyone, and her kindness, positivity, and leadership impacted me deeply. Now, as her successor as editor-in-chief of Das Tor, I do my best to channel everything that she taught me. It hasn’t been easy, but having a role model that I aspire to imitate has been invaluable to me.

Catalina Cisneros (’97) taught me the importance of dedication and perseverance. The first time I met Catalina was at a First Tuesday event at the Refuge. She was smiling and laughing, just as she has been every time that I’ve seen her since. Catalina is originally from El Salvador, and she gave up everything—literally everything—to come to the United States to pursue her career. It wasn’t an easy journey, but she never gave up, and Catalina is now a Vice President at Wells Fargo. And despite her overwhelming success, Catalina is one of the most genuine people I’ve met, always willing to offer guidance to a young T-bird like myself. Her courage, perseverance, and commitment continue to inspire me.

Lisa MacCollum (’97) taught me that help is always available to those who ask for it, and, more importantly, that’s there’s no shame in asking. Lisa was one of the first T-bird alumni that I met. We met in the Pub after Dr. Leclerc’s executive lecture the first week I moved to Phoenix, and we bonded over having both spent time living in the Midwest. Lisa and I stayed in touch, and she became one of my mentors. But the greatest lesson I’ve learned from Lisa came about during a very difficult time in my life: my summer internship fell through late last April, and I was absolutely devastated (more on that here). After barricading myself in my apartment for three days and not knowing who to turn to, I reached out in desperation to Lisa. The afternoon I spent with her that April was a huge turning point in my life. Lisa taught me that there is no shame in asking for help. She helped me to overcome my pride, admit that I was struggling, and ask for help. If it weren’t for Lisa, I wouldn’t have learned to swallow my pride and admit I needed help, and to this day I probably wouldn’t have been able to do so. Lisa’s openness and empathy continue to inspire me, and her involvement in my life has undoubtedly made me a better professional and leader.

Victoria at the TIAA conference. Courtesy TIAA
Victoria at the TIAA conference. Courtesy TIAA

Victoria Repka-Geller (’98) taught me the power of vulnerability. During the summer I spent in New York City, I attended a TIAA conference, at which Victoria gave a lecture about the challenges that she has faced and how they have shaped her career. I was in awe of her courage and the fact that she was willing to be that open and honest in front of so many people. Victoria’s willingness to be vulnerable makes her very relatable as a friend, mentor, career coach, and more. Her vulnerability has inspired me to become more open and vulnerable with others as well. She has pushed me to be honest about my struggles and challenges, and to initiate dialogue about setbacks instead of only focusing on successes.

Anna Shen (’14) taught me the importance of confidence and persistence. I also met Anna during my summer internship scramble. In the wake of my internship falling through, I saw via MyThunderbird that Anna was an Alumni Chapter Leader in Silicon Valley. Having never met her before, I blindly emailed her, explaining my situation and asking for help. She responded almost immediately, and shortly after we had a conversation that I’ll never forget. Anna is a very successful journalist and startup advisor, and she is bold and direct. She has a confidence that locks you in and completely captivates you. I was feeling timid and sorry for myself, but Anna gave me the tough love that I needed. “This isn’t the time to be shy,” she told me. “You have to be confident. Reach out to people on LinkedIn that are doing things you’re interested in. It doesn’t matter if you know them or whether or not you have a mutual connection to introduce you. Be bold, ask for five minutes of their time, and if they don’t respond, then move on to the next.” It made me uncomfortable at the time, but she was absolutely right. I took her advice and ended up having many fruitful conversations that have guided me in my career path. And now, when I’m faced with challenges that push me outside of my comfort zone, I channel Anna’s confidence and unapologetically forge ahead.

Alicia Sutton (’09) taught me the power of presence and professionalism. Alicia is another T-bird alumna that I met at a First Tuesday event shortly after moving to Phoenix, and I feel fortunate to have met her so early on in my career. Alicia has served as role model to me, especially in how I conduct myself in professional networking situations. Alicia has an incredible presence that pulls you in and makes you feel like you’re the most important person in the room. She listens attentively to every word you say, and you can tell that she’s actively engaged in the conversation. Furthermore, she remembers little details about conversations you’ve had in the past. My Thunderbird mentor once described to me this ability to connect with people instantaneously and leave a lasting impression—something he called “executive presence.” Alicia’s executive presence and professionalism are qualities that I aspire to emulate as I grow as a businesswoman and leader.

Traci Wincup (’06) taught me the power of determination and resilience. I reached out to Traci when I was going through the interview process with Hilti. Traci is a T-bird alumna who has worked for Hilti for over 10 years and is a Division Manager at the company. When I spoke with her, I expressed concern about being a woman in a male-dominated industry. But Traci hasn’t let that fact hold her back, and she encouraged me not to let it hold me back either. She conceded that there are challenges associated with being a woman in the construction industry, but nothing that can’t be overcome with determination and resilience. Her coworkers agreed. I’ve spoken with several other T-bird alumni who work at Hilti and know Traci, and all of them have spoken of her and her leadership with the highest respect. Traci’s determination and resilience are a good reminder and inspiration to all T-bird women that your gender doesn’t have to determine your career or your success.

Regardless of who you are, we all sometimes feel like our gender, background, experience, age, etc. stand between us and our dream career. It’s important to remember in those times that inspiration, support, and guidance are available all around us. We don’t have to face challenges alone. So to all the T-bird women that have inspired me, shaped my career, and supported me during setbacks and successes: thank you. I hope to inspire others as you have inspired me.

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