Winona State Celebrates Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies’ 30th Anniversary


Elly Herrick

“[Dr. Berg] you have done an amazing job of building this program and I have always been in awe at your ability to find resources in all sorts of nooks and crannies including your own pocket to bring to campus an amazing women’s history month program,” Dr. Hyamn said.

Elly Herrick, Online Editor

Tesla Mitchell was 14 years old when her sister Emily was born. Emily was born as a male.

“Since then she has found herself, accepted herself, and has taken the steps as an 18-year old adult to help her outward body reflect her internal one,” Mitchell, the digital content manager at Winona State University, said. “As a trans girl going through high school, she didn’t have a lot of support which was sad to see as her older sibling.”

Mitchell recalled one time that Emily came back from school and told her that she had worn heels that day. 

“She was proud to wear heels but was also getting side-eyed and judged…Since then she has left school and is finishing graduation online,” Mitchell said. “It frustrates me immensely that she even needed to go online because of an unaccepting environment she was in.”

From her experience with Winona State, Mitchell hopes her sister will pursue a degree here at Winona State. 

“After working here since 2021, I got to see and report on the Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies program. I had talked to students who have said that the program has made them feel supported and authentic in their skin and that is exactly what I want for my sister,” Mitchell said. “I see the impact [of the program] not only on the students themselves but the world around them. I want my sister to be in a space and community that will… embrace the amazing human that she is.”

Mitchell was impacted by the Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies (WGSS) department when she was not even a student at Winona State. Her story and many others serve as a reminder of the need to have departments like WGSS flourishing.

On April 18, the WGSS department held a 30th anniversary celebration in the Kryzsko Solarium. The department celebrated its progress in the last three decades and celebrated the retirement of Program Director Dr. Tamara Berg and affiliated faculty member Dr. Colette Hyman.

“[Dr. Berg] you have done an amazing job of building this program and I have always been in awe at your ability to find resources in all sorts of nooks and crannies including your own pocket to bring to campus an amazing women’s history month program,” Dr. Hyamn said.

The lively event began as students and faculty members looked at many tables filled with items from Dr. Berg’s office, shirts, new stickers created by the graduating class and many books about topics in WGSS. 

As people found their seats, sunlight poured in the solarium as local singer and songwriter Woolen Lover opened the event with two of their original songs called “We are Steady Underneath” and “Up on My Hill”.

Using objects like glass bottles, spoons, coins and even a toy xylophone, they created a unique performance. 

Just like how the WGSS program was started, Woolen Lover’s songs started with a simple beat and idea. They would then use a looping device to add more and more sounds to create a finished song. 

Starting with a single cohort of feminists, including Dr. Hyman, they collaborated to build up the WGSS program one ‘sound’ after another.

“We are here to celebrate 30 years of the Women’s Gender and Sexuality studies at Winona State University,” Professor and now director of the WGSS program Dr. Mary Jo Klinker said. “30 years of building rural feminists and queer coalitions, this is what WGSS does. [WGSS] bridges WSU to the community.”

The first Women’s Studies courses in the United States began in 1969. In 1991, Dr. Hyman taught the first Women’s studies course at Winona State. 

“[Dr. Colette Hyman] truly embodies the disciplinary aspect of WGSS,” Klinker said. “Research on indigenous women’s movements has offered critical guidance for our curriculum.” 

In 1998, Dr. Berg joined as the first full-time faculty member in Women’s studies. She then remained the director of the program for nearly two decades as she built the most important community on campus that centers around feminist practice.

“This engagement embodies what scholar Bell Hooks claimed that ‘feminism is for everyone’,” Klinker said. “At WSU, it belongs everywhere and Tamara really did that.” 

For more than two decades, Dr. Berg has also served on the Sexual Assault Advisory Community and created a successful Peer Education Prevention program. Lastly, one of her most recent projects is the creation of confidential advocates as a resource for students.

“[Berg’s] work has laid the groundwork to demand a safer campus for us all and it must continue,” Klinker said. “I remember [Dr. Berg] introducing me to Winona very fondly. There was a storm and we were going to her car and all of her material flew out so we had to collect them.”

After the crowd’s laughter died down, Klinker took a moment to thank the two retiring members and mentioned that without them, she would not be where she is now.

“[Dr. Hyman] and I immediately shared a fondness and friendship for the [feminist author of over 20 books] Sarah Schulman… She quickly engaged me in a cross-county book club before I even had the job,” Klinker said as she laughed. “She also asked me to read The Gentrification of the Mind [by Sarah Schulman] which I still teach to this day.”

As a historian, Dr. Hyman has done work with the International Palestine Solidarity on campus, examined Minnesota’s racial history and much more.

“Most importantly [Dr. Hyamn] has offered a friendship rounded in laughter,” Klinker said. “Thank you for that.”

Dr. Berg has been a mentor to student activists since the start of her career. With Berg’s efforts, many WGSS students were at the forefront of demands that included making Winona State more equitable and inclusive. Because of this effort, on March 8, 2013, the Knowledge, Empowerment, Advocacy, and Pluralism (KEAP) Center opened. Another demand the students had also included more LQBTQ courses which led to the WGSS program. 

Dr. Berg commented that she feels honored to be able to have taught for so many years.

“It has been such a joy to clean out my office,” Dr. Berg said laughing. “Going through stacks of paper, I’ve realized how much my students have shared with me over the years and how much I’ve learned from them. I really appreciate it.”

Dr. Berg mentioned how wonderful it is to hear from so many past students as she has been on this retirement journey. As director of the program, she was tasked with advertising the WGSS minor. Dr. Berg has done that by leading around sixteen different trips including helping people in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. 

Alumni and professor Eileen Moeller remarked that when she went through the program, it gave her the tools she needed to have a successful career.

“At the time, the WGSS program prepared me to be a critical thinker and to question the things I took for granted as a younger person,” Moeller said. “It is especially the individuals in the program who have shaped me into the person I am.”

Retired computer science professor at Winona State, Joan Francolini commented on Dr. Berg’s impact.

“When I came to WSU in 1998, Tamara was in her second year as director… I started hearing through the grapevine about this [WGSS] minor across campus,” Francolini said. “After reading reflections papers [that first year of working with Dr. Berg] I was blown away by how much the students have learned.”

Francolini explained that the longer Dr. Berg taught, the more her class grew. The Intro to WGSS class grew from 20 students a class to 120 students. Francolini calculated that she has taught approximately 3,500 students in the Intro to WGSS class alone.

Majoring in therapeutic recreation and minoring in WGSS, Winona State second-year, who would like to remain anonymous, commented on their current journey with WGSS. After taking an intro class to LGBTQ Studies class, they were hooked.

“I wasn’t sure if I would find a community in college, but with these classes, I don’t have to be incredibly outgoing…There’s a community within every classroom,” They said. “Learning about the history I was never taught in school… is really empowering.” 

Nearing the end of the event, Klinker took a moment to honor the graduating seniors with a WGSS minor. Years ago, Dr. Berg started a tradition of handing out notebooks to graduating seniors to take with them into their next life chapter.

To finish off the event, Woolen Lover was invited to the stage to perform one last song called “I am here”. 

During this song, they held out their microphone to the crowd and invited them to come to the stage to say ‘I am here’ in the microphone. They would use their looping device to create a symphony of voices.

“Does my existence threaten yours,” Woolen Lover questions in the lyrics. “I’m just trying to be here.”

After taking a group photo, Berg looked at the students who have supported and worked with her. 

“I’m proud to call you alumni,” Dr. Berg said as she clutched a tissue.