Rise: Five Women That Changed My Life

There are not always words to express the impact someone can have on your life. It could be an instantaneous connection that, from the moment you meet them, knocks you down, lifts you back up, and sends you on a new path you never expected to follow. Or, it could be slow and methodically enchanting. Over the past fifteen years, I have experienced both. There are five women that have left such an impact on me that they have shaped and inspired the ways that I engage with the world. These five women exemplify what it means to be strong female leaders. They are unique, and yet, share similar character traits that distinguish them all as remarkable. They are compassionate, resilient, and strong. They are talented, passionate, and wise. They are undeniable bad asses. 

Before I share with you their stories, I am going to tell you about me, and how five women unknowingly helped me overcome the most challenging year of my life, and inspired a painting. 

2017 was a year of struggle. From stress and illness to car accidents and financial instability to loss and death, I have faced my fair share of trials and tribulations over the past twelve months. There are more people than I can count that I need to thank for supporting me through it. In difficult times, it is easy to lose confidence. Even when others have confidence in you, the real challenge is finding that confidence again in yourself. Kim Westbrook, Sara Portwood, Anushka Pathak, Ciara Post, and Cynthia Blakeley inspire me to find it. 

One way that I seek confidence is through my artwork. Painting allows me to engage in a dialogue with myself about what's going on in my head. There is always a something that inspires me to paint. I experience a sense of euphoria when I finish a painting--that is how I know it's finished. I feel nothing. By nothing I mean that I feel the absence of something. That something that was driving me releases, and I am suddenly clear. This sensation is elusive. Despite my concerted efforts over the past few months, I couldn't attain it. I have piles of unfinished paintings in my basement that left me dejected. In my frustration, I withdrew from them, and from myself. Instead of painting, I found myself mindlessly scrolling through Facebook:

*Scrolling through bullshit. Pauses for puppy video.*

Holy shit. Kim got an internship at NASA... and now she's working at John's Hopkins?? That's fucking awesome! *beams with joy over old friend making moves*

*Scroll through more bullshit. Rewatch puppy video x3.*

God Damn. Anushka is killing it. These pictures are stunning. She is so radiant. *thinks back to seeing her on campus and her infectious smile*

There are countless moments where each of these women have left their mark on me. With each of these small instances came a huge shift. Frustration became encouragement. Stress became hope. Pressure became passion. Seeing these women doing what they love and rejoicing in their successes reignited sensations of hope, passion, and inspiration in me. Whether it was checking in on Kim, Anushka, and Sara online; talking to Ciara about travel and love and life; or meeting with Dr. Blakeley and discussing all things life and work, every engagement I had with each of them helped keep me going. 

Though I have tried; I do not have the words to truly express the impact these women have had on me. So instead, I painted. This painting, titled Rise, aims to capture the sensations of hope, passion, and inspiration that Kim, Sara, Anushka, Ciara, Cynthia, and so many other strong women instill in me. 

  Rise . Acrylic and Gloss Medium on Stretched Canvas. 48x60 in. Available for purchase.

Rise. Acrylic and Gloss Medium on Stretched Canvas. 48x60 in. Available for purchase.

Now, I would like to share their stories with you. Below are excerpts from their personal interviews, and images of them that bring them joy. I hope that their stories can bring you even a fraction of the support and encouragement that they have brought me. These women are rockstars, and deserve to be recognized. 

 

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Kimberly Westbrook

Aerospace Engineer. Artist. Youth Mentor. 

Kimberly Westbrook and I have been in school together since we were children, and participated in a Gifted and Talented arts class on Saturdays together. She is an insanely talented artist. Kim recently graduated from University of Maryland with a degree in Aerospace Engineering, interned at NASA, and is now working at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab. Though Kim and I haven't always talked frequently, I have always been cheering her on from afar and am so amazed by her accomplishments. On top of all of this she is stunning and one of the kindest and most welcoming people I know.

What do you think is the most significant barrier to female leadership?

I believe the most significant barrier to female leadership can be described by the “imposter syndrome”. This is when a woman feels unqualified or undeserving of an opportunity that isn’t traditionally feminine. It’s a difficult problem to solve because it stems from an individual’s understanding of gender roles that they’ve been developing since they were born. I believe the best way to overcome the imposter syndrome is for powerful, successful women to be constantly and enthusiastically reaching out to younger women and showing them that they’re there, succeeding in their field, succeeding in their personal lives, and absolutely loving it. Only through this outreach will we see an increase in women holding leadership roles.

Are you the woman you thought you'd be when you were a child? Please explain.

I decided that I wanted to be an aerospace engineer in the fourth grade when two NASA engineers brought a space suit to my classroom. I’m insanely lucky to have had the opportunities and support network necessary to achieve that dream, and it’s even better than I had imagined when I was a child because I’ve fallen in love with aerospace more every year.

When you are feeling down, how do you lift yourself up? 

When I’m feeling down I write about it. I started writing in college whenever I’d get really stressed out. It helps me get to the source of my emotion and leaves me with a clear mind. Writing is a great way to communicate with yourself when you’re overwhelmed or anxious.

What does "success" mean to you? What does "failure" mean to you?

The work I do now has significantly shifted my view on success and failure. I design and build mechanical components for spacecraft. As an exploratory development engineer I’m constantly failing! Every single invention that I’ve made so far has failed and needed to be reworked in some way, and that’s a beautiful thing. I don’t get frustrated any more when something breaks. I get excited because I get to find out why I failed, and apply what I’ve learned to my future work.

How do you deal with toxic situations in your life? 

Toxic situations are a great opportunity to define who you are and who you want to be. If you’re in a situation that pulls you away from who you want to be, you have to leave it. This is never an easy call but I trust my gut on this kind of thing and once I make a decision I always stick to it.

What advice would you give to a ten year old girl? OR With the knowledge that you have now, what would you tell your ten-year-old self?

I wish I could go back and tell myself, and I would tell any young girl now, to embrace the things that make you different. When I was ten I was extremely tall for my age, maybe the tallest in my class. I became cripplingly shy because I was so uncomfortable in my own skin. Now I absolutely love my height because it's something that makes me feel unique. I would encourage any young woman to stand up straight, to stand out, to be weird, loud, and one hundred percent themselves.

 
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Sara Portwood

Caretaker. Feminist. Fitness Badass. 

Sara Portwood was the president of my sorority, ADPi, when I joined in 2014. It was informally agreed that she was, in recent years, the best example of a strong female leader we had. Even through graduation, girls would reflect on what a great example she set for the sisterhood. She frequently advocates for women's rights and gender equality. Sara lights up every room she walks in and is such a welcoming presence. She is also a fitness badass and inspired me to pursue weight lifting when I was a freshman (we would frequently run into each other at the gym and I was always in awe. Sorry if that's weird. It is what it is <3). She is currently living in Charleston, South Carolina, and studies at the College of Dental Medicine at USC.

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How would you define yourself in 3 sentences?

I am beautifully imperfect, but that understanding enables me to constantly seek change. I am strong. I am resilient.

What advice would you give to a ten year old girl? OR With the knowledge that you have now, what would you tell your ten-year-old self?

I would tell my ten-year old self a few things:

  • Play more! Don’t be so serious – the rest of your life you’ll be forced to be serious – play, giggle, be silly and don’t worry about people who judge you. Their judgement says far more about their insecurities than it does about you.
  • Enjoy the time with your little brother, parents and your pets – he’s the best and so are they. You will leave for college and your time with them becomes so limited. Love them so dearly and tell them often how you feel.
  • WEAR SUNSCREEN and DRINK MORE WATER!
  • As you start to grow up – nourish your body and lift weights. Moving iron will empower you more than you know and your body will flourish because of it. Nourishing yourself will improve your ability to function and learn, not to mention you’ll feel better.
  • The people who are “cool” in middle and high school are not truly cool – don’t worry about fitting in or being liked. College is amazing, let it open your eyes and change your perspective. Life gets so much better from there. Do you - your mega nerd nature will make you successful – love it, embrace it.
  • The small window through which you’re seeing life through now gets expanded when you hit college – EMBRACE THE CHANGE! The women you meet in college will forever open your eyes, impress, and humble you. Appreciate them with all your being – they will fuel your fire and zest for life.
  • STAND UP FOR YOUR FRIENDS. Your friends become your family when you’re away from home. Fiercely advocate for and stand up for them. And know that if you do this, when the tables are turned they’ll do the same for you.
  • Finally – my only word of caution – not everyone you meet has your best interest at heart. Listen to your Dad when he says watch your surroundings, “keep your head on a swivel” – sadly, you’ll find this saves you and your friends a time or two.

What does feminism mean to you?

To me feminism is a movement working on behalf of all women’s rights to advocate for equality of the sexes. Now that’s a pretty broad definition – I realize, but we have to start somewhere. Truthfully, I have been so heartened over the past few years to see the greater feminist movement start to embrace the idea, and I’ll pull directly from the Women’s March, “Women’s Rights are Human Rights and Human Rights are Women’s Rights”. I truly believe that feminism must advocate for a society in where all women – (black, native, poor, immigrant, disabled, lesbian, queer, trans, muslim, etc.) – all women are able to live, work, love, nurture, grow, and learn in safe and healthy environments free of systemic and structural impediments (again paraphrasing WomensMarch.com! – Love them!). I have been very privileged in my life to have faced very few of these societal impediments, very privileged. I feel very strongly that these opportunities that I have had should be open to all women. When women rise, the populations and communities within which they belong also rise.

Do you have a favorite quote? If so, what is it and why?

“To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Champions are built when no one else is watching” – unknown

These two quotes really stick with me. The first by Emerson speaks to my purpose in life. My goal as a Dentist is to improve the lives of my patients. It is my definition of success through my work. The second defines my mindset on work and work ethic. The little things you do behind the scenes each and every day – those small decisions you make – dictate your success or failure. Do the extra work, put in the time it will pay off. When you’re on stage that is not the moment you improve – you’re simply executing a task that you’ve prepared to perform. This concept of putting in the work while no one is around has been critical to my success in many aspects of my life, mentally, physically and professionally.

What one thing do you think you’re most like?

I think I’m most like a cactus – bear with me on this. The cactus does not wither under extreme circumstances, it continues to stretch towards the sky embracing the struggle and continue to blossom. During times of plenty, when it rains, it appreciates the excess and stores the water for it knows just as quickly as success comes that challenges can return – stay humble and do not waste. Cacti have thorns to protect themselves from others, but on the same token they will host the occasional desert bird in need of a home within their stalk and nourish these guests with their flowers. They don’t mind the isolation because they know they’re strong enough to continue on. Their imperfections are the key to their beauty – they bend, they adapt, they stand tall, they are strong and are vital components of the desert ecosystem. Like the cactus I am resilient, I thrive under pressure, I can stay strong in the face of great adversity and will open my arms to those in need.

 
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Anushka Pathak

Model. Writer. Businesswoman. 

Photo by Adarsh Bindal, Published in 404 Magazine

Anushka Pathak is currently studying at Emory University and is an incredibly involved member of the community (particularly in business and entrepreneurship). I met Anushka various times in my final years at Emory and was always stunned by her unwavering spirit. Every time I saw her on campus I was met with an infectious smile and enthusiastic hello. Her energy and warmth changed Emory's campus for me. Though this does not define her, Anushka shared the story of how she lost her arm to a drunk bus driver in an accident years ago. From an outside perspective, this tragedy does not seem to slow her down as she models in various campus art and fashion mags (and is by far one of the most stylish people I know). She is simply gorgeous inside and out. Though we haven't spent as much time together as I would like, I am inspired by her strength and perseverance. 

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What inspires you?

Every new day in my life is what inspires me. Because a new day inspires me to pursue a new challenge every day. I get to be part of something new and exciting almost all the time and that is what keeps me going!

Are you the woman you thought you'd be when you were a child?

Well, as a child I wanted to be a chef haha. That didn’t quite work out, but am I the person I wanted to be as a child? So far, yes. But because I learn something new almost every day, it helps me grow and evolve even more. So I would say, it’s a work in progress.

What does feminism mean to you?

It means that every single individual must have equal rights, regardless of their gender.

Do you have a favorite quote? If so, what is it and why?

“Be fearless in the pursuit of what sets your soul on fire.” – Anonymous
Because it gives me the confidence to take calculated risks and reach new heights so I can achieve my goals.

What is your story? 

In March 2012, I lost my right arm in a road accident which was caused by the carelessness of the bus driver who was intoxicated while driving the vehicle. This incident has changed me a lot and has helped me evolve as a person. It doesn’t define me but it has certainly helped shape my personality. I have learnt a lot from it and it is what pushed me to make the most of my life every single day. It drives me to accept every challenge that is thrown at me.

What does "success" mean to you? What does "failure" mean to you?

Success, according to me, is the result of your personal best effort that you put into a task. According to me, it doesn’t have to be an assigned trophy or a top 3 position, it must be a moment where you feel like you did a great job and are satisfied with what you did. Failure – is an opportunity to learn from your mistakes so your next best effort is even better than the last one.

 
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Ciara Post

Artist. Activitst. World Traveler. 

Ciara Post is currently studying at Barnard College in New York City. Ciara is a talented artist and an "old soul." She is particularly passionate about arts therapy, and travels to Sri Lanka to volunteer in a shelter for young women who have been victims of sex trafficking and sexual assault. I originally met Ciara when she joined an arts advocacy group I was a part of at Emory. She almost immediately became a huge source of inspiration and support for me in a very difficult time. Rise is inspired in part by a painting Ciara created and shared with me when I visited her in NYC this fall. When I think of Ciara, I think of her in a coffee shop with a cup of tea and a sketchbook that has a watercolor painting of flowers and the quote "The Future is Female."

What brings you fulfillment? and/or Who or what brings you joy? Why?

The happiest moment of my life to date was when I was teaching an art therapy class. The class was for young Sri Lankan women who had survived sexual abuse, a part of Emerge Lanka's (www.emergeglobal.org) art therapy and education programming for women's empowerment. We were painting self-portraits that were divided in two -- one side represented how the girls saw themselves and the other, how they thought others saw them. At the beginning, several of the girls were hunched over the workshop table, refusing to make eye contact and shielding their canvases from view. By the end of the four hours though, their bodies had opened up; they were standing, some of them singing, and when they finished their paintings, we lined them all up on the wall of the workshop room for all of us to see. "What did you like about this process?" I asked. "I realized that some people think that my life is all bad, but that there are actually good and beautiful pieces of my life too," one of the girls responded. After the girls had left, I sat in that room, staring up at the wall, grinning -- these paintings were so unique to each of the girls and I never could have dreamed up what they would look like on my own.

As an artist myself, I have discovered that art making is crucial for my own mental health. When I paint, I escape the whirring of my thoughts, release stress, and am the happiest and most present version of myself. So, sharing art as a resource to help others process trauma has become a hugely important part of my life and something that I am committed to for the future.

What does "success" mean to you? What does "failure" mean to you?

To me, success is about fulfillment, balance, and happiness. In high school I had a lot of anxiety and was far too wrapped up in the very American idea of getting into a prestigious college so that I could be successful (i.e. financially) and move on from there. Thankfully, however, I took a gap year between high school and college. During this time, I gained perspective. I lived and worked around the world; I started in Thailand, working for an animal shelter, then moved to Sri Lanka, working for Emerge (mentioned previously), next Western Samoa, as an artist in residence, and lastly Paris, waitressing and taking French classes. I discovered that other cultures, particularly in the East, have very different perceptions of what success means, with much more emphasis placed on community and balance. And I found that when I was painting and teaching art classes and had the fewest things, I was the best version of myself. As a result, I have decided that my pursuits need to center on what I love and am passionate about, which is why I have decided to take the somewhat terrifying leap of double-majoring in Art and Human Rights. My dream is to eventually start a non-profit that helps women cope with trauma through art therapy, possibly in the developing world, and to build my own art practice on the side as well.
 

What advice would you give to a ten year old girl? OR With the knowledge that you have now, what would you tell your ten-year-old self?

If I were giving advice to a ten-year-old younger version of myself, or a ten-year-old girl generally, I would say, do what you love. If you find something that makes you happy, follow that feeling and you will find that the rest tends to follow. It may be scary and overwhelming at times, but a life built around what you love and care about is a successful and exciting one. Don't let anyone tell you that you can't do it; instead surround yourself with people who tell you that you can.

 
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Dr. Cynthia Blakeley

Teacher. Editor. Mentor. Friend.

I first met Dr. Cynthia Blakeley as a junior at Emory University in her class, Memory and Memoir. To this day, Memory and Memoir is one of my favorite academic experiences. Throughout the course, we read various memoirs such as Crazy Love by Leslie Morgan Steiner, History Lessons by Clifton Crais, and A Full Life by President Jimmy Carter (we met him, too!). Dr. Blakeley facilitated conversations regarding the formation of identity, co-creation of history, and functions of the brain and memory. Dr. Blakeley's compassion for and dedication to her students is unparalleled. Every student left the classroom feeling more knowledgeable, open, and fulfilled. I know this because no one truly wanted to leave. The end of the semester was bittersweet, but her lessons continue to impact those she reached over those few short months. 

In many ways, Dr. Blakeley is a "mother" figure to her students, myself included. She is attentive and kind, and makes you feel as though you are the only person in the world when she speaks with you. During the Spring of 2017, she served on the committee of my honors thesis. At the time, I was riddled with stress and depression, but she offered a constant source of support and encouragement. Without her, I do not know if I would have completed the project. 

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Aside from my own admiration for her as a teacher, Dr. Blakeley is also a writer and editor. Before receiving her Ph.D. in Interdisciplinary Studies from Emory University, she received an MA from New College Berkeley, was a Fulbright teaching assistant in Bordeaux, and received a BA from Trinity College (Hartford). She was the first of her family to attend college. Her daughter, Hannah Rose, has followed in her footsteps and is currently a Fulbright teaching assistant in Austria. In my opinion, the world would be a better place with better education and better parenting. Dr. Blakeley is certainly doing her part.