Meet Stephanie Helms Pickett

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Chris Heltne
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Thumbnail Stephanie Helms Pickett was recently named as the new Director of the Duke Women's Center. We asked her a few questions about herself, and her how she plans to serve the Duke community.

Why is working in higher education important to you?

I often tell folks that I went away to college and I fell in love. It wasn't with a significant other, but instead the environment.  

When I arrived at my school as an undergraduate, I had limited knowledge of what I was in for. I'd never seen the campus. I was a first generation college student. My family was supportive, but they didn't know what I would be exposed to, confronted with, challenged about and affirmed to become. It was all a new experience, for me and for them. I needed help, and I found it. There was a woman named Virginia Rinella who worked in the Career Development Center, and instructed an orientation course. She was one of my professors, and eventually became my mentor. She was instrumental in providing me with the tools, resources and compassion I needed to navigate a place so foreign to me. She was a significant person in my developmental experience, providing both challenge and support. I am forever grateful for her presence at that crucial point in my life.

Being a student who was involved in a plethora of activities and organizations, I decided early my senior year that I wanted to assist students in the same manner and extension that was given to me. So, instead of pursuing Oprah Winfrey's job in Chicago (I was a Radio-Tv Broadcasting Major), I elected to pursue a graduate degree in Higher Education and from there, a career in Student Affairs. Since then, I've had the opportunity to work with thousands of students over the last 20 years at public, private, single sex, predominantly white and historically black institutions of higher learning. It has provided me joy and challenge. It has allowed me to give voice to policies and ideas. It has afforded me the opportunity to ensure that the place that I fell in love with over 25 years ago is safe, welcoming, affirming, challenging and empowering for all who enter and exit. It is a decision I've never regretted.

Is there someone in your life that has guided or inspired you?

My mother has always been my biggest inspiration. She was a single parent. My father passed away when I was 5, and she never remarried. I was reared on the south side of Chicago with limited monetary resources, but bountiful amounts of love, wisdom, compassion, accountability and faith. She was not afforded the opportunity to attend college, but it was always an expectation that I would. She has always believed in me, encouraged me, counseled me and corrected me. There is absolutely nothing that I've ever aspired to do without her full endorsement. The guiding principles she set for me have played a profound role in my life and who I present myself to be in any community. Further, her modeling has shaped me as a mother, a sister, friend, colleague and woman. She is my blueprint for how I interact and serve to bring out the gifts of others to witness their mark on this world.

How do you hope to serve the women of campus and the campus on women's issues?

The women at Duke are incredible. They are smart, savvy, innovative, empowered and beautiful. They are engaged and concerned. And yet, in conversations and spaces with women, you hear them speak of the challenge to be their authentic self in this environment. Academic engagement, leadership, entrepreneurship, belongingness, sexual violence, self-esteem, racial disparity, body image, social capital, choices, decision-making, and relationships are a part of their ethos; and each of these issues present themselves to women, concurrently and on a daily basis.  

I hope to encourage greater space for conversation with each other, to elicit compassion and understanding for each other's narratives before we can even speak of navigating the environment. Mentoring has always played a critical role in my life. I would like to see more of it, between underclass and upperclass students, with undergraduate and graduate/professional students, and with students and staff and faculty. I hope to continue the legacy of ensuring that women's voices are heard, and that that their voices are reflected in policy and the life of the university. I will make myself available to women, to hear what gives them joy at Duke, what gives them pause and what they need to be successful here and post Duke. I will listen, I will be accountable and I will be active to represent the concerns of women in student and academic life. I hope that as students, staff and faculty reflect on their Duke experiences, they can boldly state that the Center played a role in exposing them to something new, affirmed them as to who they are, and propelled them to higher heights. I want to move people and the environment from a place of knowing womanist and feminist theory to a place of doing and being womanist and feminist theory. I hope to inspire a deepened sense of community so that women's issues overall are not only heard, but responded to.

Tell us about the Women's Center staff?

The Women's Center staff are amazing! They are committed to the affirmation and empowerment of women. They are passionate about serving the needs of women and creating a climate that is safe, equitable and liberating, to fully enjoy and embrace their Duke experience. They model work-life integration and encourage women to lead lives that are reflective of their authentic selves. They encourage women to ask the tough questions, challenge systems that aren't representative of everyone, and insist their voices be heard and not silenced.

Full time staff and student interns create programming and discussions that allow us to consider multiple frameworks from a socially responsible perspective. I encourage anyone who is curious about the Women's Center to stop by, sit down and open up!

If you could stress a message to campus about the work the Women's Center does, what would it be?

The Women's Center is the place that always welcomes you, no matter what your path, how you arrived and where you intend to go, even if you don't know where that is right now. It celebrates your success, calms your fears, sustains your soul and, when you need it, gives you shelter from life's circumstances. It is a space that keeps on giving.

Now in her eighth year at Duke, Helms Pickett's other roles at the university have included directing Assessment and Professional Development within Student Affairs, chairing the Duke's Bias Analysis Task Force and serving on the Task Force on Gender and the Undergraduate Experience. Before coming to Duke, Helms Pickett worked at Bennett College, the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, Durham Public Schools and Meredith College. She has been an instructor at Duke and Walden University, and holds numerous professional and committee appointments. She has published two books, "Later Never Came Until Now," and "Her Name is SHE."

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