Photo by Erin Nishimura
Second-year mechanical engineering student Cynthia Vo started identifying as a feminist after she started at UCLA in the fall of 2015.
“When I was growing up, I was always taught [by my family] that girls are better than guys at STEM,” says Vo. “In the outside world, guys are considered better.” STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, and these fields — especially technology and engineering — are known for their low percentages of women. Being exposed to ideas that contradict popular binary gender stereotypes helped Vo realize that stereotypes are something that are taught, and that they are nothing more than social constructs.
She was also inspired by all of the activists on campus. “At UCLA I was able to see people protest, organize huge events, and actually, physically do something [about the injustices they saw],” she says. Vo came to realize that combating misogyny is not a hopeless pursuit and that students have the power to take action to promote the causes they care most about.
When asked about the future of feminism, Vo says she hopes it will replace misogyny as the social norm. “Blatant sexism is normal, but it shouldn’t be normal,” she says, citing a sexist advertisement she discussed recently, in which a jeans company chose to hint at a rape situation to display their product. “I hope feminism becomes so normal that people will look back at today and be totally disgusted.”
“Being around feminists [at UCLA] made me want to do things that also promote feminism.” Vo has always enjoyed working with kids, which led her to join Women and Youth Supporting Each Other (WYSE) at the beginning of the Winter 2017 quarter. Every week, she and the other mentors drive out to KIPP Scholar Academy to work with middle school students.
Vo says that she was particularly drawn to this program because it focused on helping young girls. “We talk to the girls about identity, just to expose them to these ideas so they can think about it,” she says, adding that she believes it helps her mentees make the best decisions they can.
She and the other WYSE mentors also discuss puberty and sexual harassment with their students. Harassment has been one topic they’ve focused on because of a sexist trend at their mentees’ school called “booty slap Friday.” Inspired by social media, students — mostly boys — will slap people on the butts on Fridays.
“The girls know it’s wrong,” she says, “but they either don’t know what to do about it or they accept it.”
“The culture of middle school [students] is to not point out that things aren’t right,” Vo explains. “It’s scary to tell people off, and [often] people will brush it off as a joke.” This led the WYSE mentors to teach the girls in the program that they need to step up and say something if they see someone being harassed. With this guidance, the mentees filmed a video of themselves speaking out against the sexual harassment they face at school.
Vo’s favorite part of mentoring is getting shy students to share their opinions and experiences. “I see some mentees who are more shy and don’t speak up, but sometimes we discuss [topics that resonate with them] and they speak up,” she says, adding that she can relate to being quiet and shy.
Vo will continue her role as a mentor into the summer, when she will work as a New Student Advisor for incoming UCLA students.