Newcomb Scholars Symposium 2019

Center of the Action

The Newcomb Institute evolves in the 21st century, taking a prominent place in The Commons and carrying on Josephine Louise Newcomb’s vision for women’s education.

Above photo: Lipaz Avigal, a political economy and Spanish major, presented a comparative approach to populist movements in France and Bolivia at the Newcomb Scholars Symposium held on April 13, 2019. The symposium is an opportunity for scholars to share the results of their academic work. (Photo by Cheryl Gerber)

The program for the annual Newcomb Scholars Symposium, held each spring on Tulane’s uptown campus, is a testament to the breadth and gravity of the H. Sophie Newcomb Memorial College Institute, also known as the Newcomb Institute.

The symposium gives graduating scholars an opportunity to share the results of their yearlong independent research projects capping four years of study and to describe in detail the scope of their work. 

Kelsey Williams, a public health major, designed a peer education program geared toward reducing teen pregnancy among AIDS orphans in Nairobi, Kenya. Juliet Chin, who double majored in digital media production and cultural anthropology, produced a documentary on the Chinese community of Jamaica, the birthplace of her father. Jacqueline Wagner, a sociology major, analyzed the effects of fertility apps on the right of women to make informed choices about their reproductive health. 

A few days later, Tulane President Mike Fitts praised the Institute as “the beating heart of Tulane University and everything we stand for: excellence, engagement and community.” 

Speaking at Under the Oaks 2019, an annual ceremony honoring distinguished students, Newcomb alumnae award recipients and 50-year graduates of Newcomb College, he said, “The Newcomb Institute embodies my vision for Tulane. It adds depth to the undergraduate experience. It facilitates interdisciplinary scholarship. It allows our students to make connections in math and music, science and history. It engages them in meaningful research.” 

"The Newcomb Institute embodies my vision for Tulane. It adds depth to the undergraduate experience. It facilitates interdisciplinary scholarship. It allows our students to make connections in math and music, science and history. It engages them in meaningful research."

MIKE FITTS, President of Tulane

Such praise brings a smile to the face of Sally J. Kenney, a political scientist who has served as executive director of the Newcomb Institute and held the Newcomb endowed chair since 2010. Through the Institute’s mission of educating undergraduate women for leadership in the 21st century, she has seen the program blossom into an all-encompassing experience that has students tackling some of the world’s most critical gender issues, including sexual assault, gender pay equity, reproductive justice and mass incarceration.

“It’s a hugely transformative experience,” Kenney said. “It isn’t just about sitting in classes; it’s having a close relationship with faculty that gives students the confidence and portfolio to be leaders. It’s about going out and doing things in the world, and this is what our students find so satisfying. 

“We’ve had students organize conferences dealing with sexual assault on campus,” she said. “We have a program in which students work with women inside the Louisiana Correctional Institute. We offer a course on women legislators. Students then go and work for a woman legislator.”

Sally J. Kenney
Sally J. Kenney, political scientist and holder of the endowed Newcomb chair, directs the Newcomb Institute, whose spacious new home is in The Commons.

Since its founding in 1886 as the first coordinate women’s college in the United States, H. Sophie Newcomb Memorial College has undergone many changes, including a 2006 merger with Paul Tulane College to become Newcomb-Tulane College, the creation of the H. Sophie Newcomb Memorial College Institute (now Newcomb Institute), and now most recently, the Newcomb Institute’s move to The Commons.

Kenney worked closely with Tulane administration to find a new home, keeping the Institute at the center of campus consistent with its mission. Kenney proposed adding a third floor to The Commons, the $55 million, 77,000-square-foot building, which is connected to the Lavin-Bernick Center for University Life and which opened at the beginning of the 2019–20 academic year. The Newcomb Institute will now occupy that entire third floor, consisting of 19,000 square feet of space, including an event space for 100 people, three meeting rooms, a library and archives with a dedicated reading room, a series of study spaces, a conference room and an open-air courtyard.

Newcomb Under the Oaks Ceremony
Mortar Board president Ellyn Frohberg participates in Under the Oaks — a ceremony honoring distinguished students, alumnae and 50-year graduates of Newcomb College — in May 2019. Mortar Board is a national honor society that recognizes college seniors for excellence in scholarship, leadership and service. The Newcomb flag is in the background.

Throughout its 133 years, Newcomb Institute’s rich history of cultivating women’s leadership through undergraduate research and service-learning curricula has proven no stranger to change; the Institute’s ability to adapt and grow has proven crucial in its mission to continue to create meaningful learning and leadership abilities for students while promoting gender equity.  

“Although I worked closely choosing the architects and designing the building over the last seven years, The Commons is more fabulous than I could have ever imagined,” Kenney said.  “We’re actually going to have offices that are designed as offices and not somebody’s living room and a computer lab that was not designed to be a cafeteria.”

Kenney was referring to Newcomb Institute’s old makeshift headquarters first at 43 Newcomb Place, then at 7025 Freret St., once a two-story house with four apartments. It also occupied space at the Caroline Richardson Building and 1326 Audubon St.

"It's a hugely transformative experience. It isn't just about sitting in classes; it's having a close relationship with faculty that gives students the confidence and portfolio to be leaders. It's about going out and doing things in the world, and this is what our students find so satisfying."

SALLY KENNEY, executive director of Newcomb Institute

“With The Commons, we’ll have a clear identity,” she said. “It puts us right at the center of campus as opposed to being spread out among three locations or on the periphery of the campus, as many women’s centers and research centers are.”

While the new space is everything the staff of the Newcomb Institute could have ever hoped for, they are well aware that it is second to the Newcomb experience, be it as a Newcomb Scholar, a grant recipient or a student simply interested in attending a lecture or film. 

Isabella Johnson, a Newcomb Scholar from San Diego, said the program satisfied her craving for a community that would facilitate her academic growth through a feminist lens. 
“One of the most significant aspects of the program is the fact that it centers around women and leadership,” she said. “I think that it is important to have spaces on campus to discuss gender and feminism and the way that these influence all aspects of our lives.” 

As a Newcomb Scholar, Johnson received funding to conduct research on women’s reproductive health, traveled to a Public Leadership Education Network Women in Global Policy Conference, conducted a literature review, wrote and published a case study, and attended women-focused classes on history, epistemology, leadership and research.

Johnson graduated in May 2019 with a bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering and is now enrolled in Tulane’s fifth-year master’s program. She said she will continue her research on women’s reproductive health, specifically a project titled “Determining the Role of Clinical Factors in Pelvic Organ Prolapse.”

“As I reflect on my past four years at Tulane,” she said, “it is clear that I have grown immensely both as a scholar and as a leader. The Newcomb Institute and the Newcomb Scholars Program were instrumental to this growth.” She eventually plans to return to San Diego to pursue a career in women’s reproductive health.
Jackie Schornstein (SSE ’13), a member of the first cohort of Newcomb Scholars in 2010, said she was drawn to the program because of the opportunity to learn leadership skills and to study with similar-minded female students. She researched domestic violence and women in prison, merging the two into her final project — battered women incarcerated for killing their abusers and the clemency movement of the 1990s.
Today, she works as an associate philanthropy officer at Planned Parenthood Federation of America. She credits the Newcomb Institute, the Newcomb Scholars Program and Kenney with solidifying her passion for women’s issues and social justice. 
“It’s something I carry with me to this day in the work that I do,” said Schornstein, who also serves on the Newcomb Institute Directors Advisory Council. “It has allowed me to connect and form bonds with some incredible women who I am still in touch with today.” 

Kenney said she is proud of former Newcomb Scholars like Schornstein and Johnson but added that the program, while a major one, is among a wide array of offerings by the Newcomb Institute serving hundreds of students. 

Kenya Equator
Students stand on the equator in Kenya during a Newcomb Institute program in August 2018. They worked with the Ngong Road Children Association summer camp. Newcomb Institute Executive Director Sally J. Kenney (back row, center) also led sessions on leadership and reproductive health, while the students learned firsthand about international development.

For example, the Newcomb Institute sponsors 26 student organizations, among them African American Women’s Society, Women in Politics, Women in Science and Tulane International Society. It awards grants to support undergraduate students’ research, conference travel and community engagement.
The Spark Residential Learning Community encourages first-year women to build and engage in creative, intellectual and social justice communities at Tulane, in New Orleans and beyond.  Next year, Newcomb will add a second residential learning community in Josephine Louise Hall focused on STEM.

Other programs include mentoring from Newcomb alumnae, internships, gender-focused courses such as Women’s Legislative Leadership and The Politics of Rape, programs dealing with sexual violence prevention, and the Newcomb Archives and Vorhoff Library Special Collections.

“Some people might come to three or four talks a year,” Kenney said. “We give out $140,000 a year in grants. You can research the history of feminism of the Gulf South. Regardless of what students study, the Newcomb Institute seeks to prepare them for leadership in a gendered world.  We work towards gender equity on campus to create a more gender-equitable world.” 

With the Institute’s move into The Commons, confusion about where the Newcomb Institute is, what it does and how it differs from Newcomb-Tulane College or the Newcomb Art Museum will be minimized. While not every student will take advantage of the opportunities the Institute provides, Kenney hopes students will all know that such opportunities exist.

Kenney, an avid birder, recently traveled to the Galapagos to celebrate her 60th birthday.  Her motto is “evolve or die.”  
“Women’s institutions, social movements and institutions of higher learning must constantly evolve to be relevant to new generations,” she said. “Newcomb Institute works to carry Josephine Newcomb’s vision for women’s education in the 19th century to the 21st century.”

The Commons
The Commons, which opened this fall, houses dining facilities and is a central gathering spot for the Tulane community as well as a new home for the Newcomb Institute.