Dawn Albert and Jenny McKenzie will never forget the moment they discovered their calling.
As students, the 2008 Willamette University alumnae were talking with their cast mates in “The Vagina Monologues” when they learned the unexpected.
“These women shared stories of violence, of abuse, of the suffering they’ve experienced.” Albert says. “That ignited my desire to raise awareness and to work with other women, to empower each other.”
From then on, Albert and McKenzie identified themselves as advocates.
Albert volunteered for Sexual Assault Response Allies (SARA), which McKenzie helped found, and the two co-directed Strength Health Equality (S.H.E.) — a student organization that focuses on issues of gender inequality.
Albert and McKenzie also participated in projects independent of one another — from the Watson Fellowship that enabled McKenzie to conduct research around the globe, to the Council on Diversity and Social Justice, a committee Albert joined that created mandatory diversity programs for first-year students.
“They are the best that a liberal arts college can produce: intelligent, independent, resourceful scholars who are completely engaged with their communities,” she says. “I am honored and proud to have been part of their journey and am grateful for their example.”
Although their lives took separate paths after graduating, the two are together again in the San Francisco Bay Area — each continuing the advocacy work they began as college students.
“The people I serve aren’t just surviving, they’re thriving,” says McKenzie, who aids survivors of domestic violence. "It’s amazing to see what they can do.”
Finding Their Place
When Albert was touring prospective colleges, Willamette made a strong first impression.
“It was the most friendly of all the colleges I applied to and visited,” says Albert, who majored in politics. “When I arrived on campus and didn’t know how to get around, people helped me. That was a deal breaker.”
McKenzie formed the same conclusion, adding that she connected with Willamette’s small size and motto, “Not unto ourselves alone are we born.”
“I loved the intimacy of it, the community of it,” McKenzie says. “I was in the mode where I wanted to be immersed in everything.”
Albert and McKenzie met as freshmen. Since then, Albert says the two have remained “soul friends.”
“We encouraged each other to do courageous things on campus, to rock the boat,” she says. “We created quite a community.”
McKenzie studied abroad in Ecuador and earned a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship her senior year. After graduating, she used her award to work with theatre companies and community and college groups that produced “The Vagina Monologues” — researching how different cultures adapted the play to speak to universal women’s issues.
“It was absolutely one of the best experiences of my life,” says McKenzie, who majored in anthropology and Spanish and minored in art. “Leaving Willamette, I felt so emboldened. I started this crazy journey from a strong place.”
A Fork in the Road
While McKenzie was exploring such exotic locales as India, Mexico and South Africa, Albert was embarking on an adventure of her own in New Orleans.
She became a debate coach and science teacher through Teach for America, dedicating two years to helping improve educational outcomes for children living in poverty.
Determined to serve as a positive role model, she quickly forged strong bonds with her students. At the same time, she felt overwhelmed by her newfound responsibilities and lack of institutional support.
“One student was abused by her mom. Another came out as gay to me. There were a lot of disclosures in that way,” she says. “My relationships with my students were my number one reward, but after seeing how utterly they’ve been failed, I began to lose faith in myself and my abilities.”
Albert is now writing a book about this period of her life, and Richard Ellis, her former advisor and politics professor, is helping her edit it.
“The book is a very poignant account of her experiences,” Ellis says. “It’s quite funny in places but raw in others. You feel like you are there.”
For the past several years, McKenzie’s career has centered on helping survivors of domestic violence. She works at the Riley Center in San Francisco, where she’s the program manager and community education, outreach and volunteer coordinator.
Through her job, she develops crisis counseling, support groups and community education programs. She also trains nursing students to screen for domestic violence.
She credits her Spanish major with enabling her to provide bilingual services in her employment. With her art minor, she’s launched a photography business, Laughing Lens Photography.
McKenzie’s next objective is to continue developing her skills as a counselor and a community educator by pursuing her master’s in social work.
“When I have the expertise, I can better help the medical and therapy field respond to cases of domestic violence,” she says about her long-term goals. “I’m very excited. All the pieces are falling together.”
Albert is also optimistic about the future. Since her time with Teach for America, she’s provided mental health counseling and academic support to at-risk youths and their families.
Now she works as a special events intern at Women’s Initiative for Self-Employment in Oakland, Calif. The nonprofit agency provides business training, micro loans and ongoing support to low-income women wanting to start their own businesses.
“We’re empowering women so they can raise themselves out of poverty,” Albert says. “It’s a really effective model of training women and supporting them.”
Looking back, Albert and McKenzie say they’re grateful for their liberal arts education, which prepared them for the twists and turns in their careers.
“Students are surrounded by opportunities to create defining relationships with their friends and professors. They have opportunities to explore their passions,” McKenzie says. “This is the time.”