Women’s centre donor speaks

The University of Calgary Women’s Resource Centre opened Wed., Oct. 18. The new ladies lounge was made possible by a donation from the U of C’s special advisor to the president on student life Sheila O’Brien, and her husband Kevin Peterson.

O’Brien was hired to improve student experience on campus and was closely involved in the development of the women’s centre, though all along she held that there was a secret, external donor.

“The donor was always Kevin and myself,” said O’Brien. “When I started the Take Your Place project, Kevin and myself were committed to a donation.”

In addition to an executive career in the oil and gas industry, O’Brien has long been involved in women’s issues. She was part of YWCA Calgary and played an integral part in creating the Sheriff King Shelter for Battered Women, the first women’s shelter in Canada designed for victims of abuse.

“One of the things that always struck me is when women were meeting it was always in really crummy space,” said O’Brien. “And that affects what you are and what you do. It affects how you feel about yourself when you’re in a space that’s hand-me-down, and not clean or built for what you want to do.”

O’Brien would not disclose the amount of the donation, but confirmed it paid for all of the renovation costs. There will also be a five-year ongoing donation to assist the women’s centre with special projects. She said the ongoing donation will act as seed money used every year to advance the mission of the women’s centre.

“I was very surprised that there wasn’t a women’s centre here,” said O’Brien. “World-class universities all have a women’s centre. There was a group of women working to get a space for years. All they needed was a catalyst, someone to provide the funds and someone to navigate through administration. I was lucky because I was able to do both those things.”

The women’s centre is just one of the 40 spaces promised by the Take Your Place program. O’Brien came up with TYP while talking to students around campus about how the university could make their experience better.

“Last summer when I first got here I talked to students,” said O’Brien. “One guy told me that during breaks he went to his car.”

It’s important to have a place where there can be dialogue around both the academic and student experience, said O’Brien.

O’Brien noted that she met her own husband here on campus.

“He was the editor of the Gauntlet and I was the editor of the Tally Stick, the old university yearbook,” O’Brien said. “We met in the basement of the Dining Centre where our old offices were.”

“A lot of who I am now was shaped by discussions I had outside of the classroom,” she said, stressing the university experience is also about creating a community, having fun and hanging out with friends.

“Kevin and I are really happy to be a part of this women’s centre,” said O’Brien. “We’re happy with the way it turned out and with the plans Stephanie [Garret, women’s centre executive director] has to move it forward.”

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