Women's successes rewarded at event

The sixth annual Remarkable Women Awards selected 12 winners from 40 nominees

Steffi Lau, staff writer
Daily Trojan
March 7, 2008

Growing up with a single mother and two younger sisters, Ana del Rocío Valderrama had to face criticism from outsiders who questioned the absence of a male presence in her family.

"The outside view was, 'Why don't you have a man?' as if we needed a male to legitimize our family," she said.

Today, del Rocío Valderrama, a senior majoring in philosophy, is the first in her family to surpass middle school education and will be the first to graduate from college.

Del Rocío Valderrama, her two sisters and their mother are all in college and have risen above that skepticism as well.

"It proves that women can do a lot," she said.

That sentiment was shared by a roomful of women at the sixth annual Remarkable Women Awards on March 5.

Del Rocío Valderrama and 11 other women received the awards as part of a tradition that aims to honor women at USC for their accomplishments.

The women were chosen out of about 40 nominees, who were either self-nominated or nominated by others.

Three winners were chosen to represent each category: staff, faculty, undergraduate students and graduate students. The other undergraduate winners were Janet Beyan, a senior majoring in health promotion and disease prevention and Robyn Strumpf, a junior majoring in mechanical engineering and political science.

Winners were chosen based on achievements in their respective fields, contributions to USC, commitment to students' and women's issues and community involvement.

In 1999, Strumpf founded Project Books and Blankies, a nonprofit literacy organization that has raised more than $130,000 to provide books and handmade quilts to libraries, after-school programs and shelters.

Beyan, a refugee of the Liberian Civil War, almost died of jaundice at the age of 6.

She said that experience, as well as being exposed to issues in school, inspired her to pursue a career in public health. She works as a Peer Health Educator, through which she educates students about health practices and conducts HIV testing.

She has been accepted to George Washington University for graduate school, where she will major in maternal and child health.

Beyan said she hopes to become involved in intervention programs that address malnutrition issues and give women information about breast-feeding, prenatal care and birth control.

"In other countries, women's bodies aren't their own," Beyan said. "Because people are poor, they often have no choice but to be sex workers or be at the whim of men, who might not let them use contraceptives. Through that, they often contract HIV."

She said she wants to get a job with the U.S. Agency for International Development, and work abroad with women and children's health.

"It's not just a matter of dumping a bunch of condoms in another country,'" Beyan said. "We need to educate them and let them know that this is why people are dying, but still try to compromise with their culture."

While Beyan is concerned for women's health rights abroad, she said women's rights in the United States are not where they could be.

"When you're watching the news, and you see Hillary Clinton, people still have comments about how she's trying to be like a man, or how she's being too feminine," Beyan said. "Why do we have to compare women to men's standards? Why not just let her be a woman on her own?"

Del Rocío Valderrama said she has encountered this theme of male domination in her study of philosophy, noting that there are only two women professors in the department and that there are only a handful of women in her classes. She hopes to focus on feminist philosophy.

"There's only a very small section dedicated to it in books," she said. "Ironically, most feminist philosophy is done by men. I want to do it from a woman's perspective."

Her goal is to open a school for girls from the indigenous, rural community in her family's native Peru.

In July, del Rocío Valderrama, who has never been to Peru, will be moving to Lima where she will teach English for a year at a international English learning institute.

Afterwards, she plans to come back to the United States to earn a doctorate, and then hopes to return to Peru to open a school.

"Even though in the U.S., women have made progress, oppression abroad is ridiculously present," del Rocío Valderrama said. "I feel that since my roots are in Peru, my duty lies there."

Del Rocío Valderrama said she got the idea for opening a school while doing independent research, where she studied the success of Chicano males in the Los Angeles Unified School District. She realized that although it was difficult for Chicano males in LAUSD, it was even more so for girls in rural communities.

"In Peru, the rich girls have a lot and the poor girls have very little," she said. "Often, indigenous families in poor, rural areas only send males to school."

"Often, girls can't go to school with their period because they have no resources. Sexual assault rates are high. They're perceived as not special, and so there's this vicious cycle of being dependent on males."

As the first in her family to be graduating from college and a woman of color, del Rocío Valderrama said she has learned to fight for her own recognition.

"It definitely made me a fighter," del Rocío Valderrama said. "It was a challenge to prove to the community that I do have the skills to effect change. Even at a school as progressive as USC, I would be lying to say that it's easy for women."

Heather Larabee, assistant dean of students and director of campus activities, urged women to help each other in these struggles in her closing speech.

She quoted Madeline Albright, former United States Secretary of State, saying, "There's a special place in hell for women who don't help other women."

"Luckily, none of us here need to worry about that," Larabee said. "We're all doing our part."

©2014-2015 Steffi Lau. All rights reserved.