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Deputy Vice-Chancellor tells inspiring story for International Women’s Day

The University of Wales Trinity Saint David (UWTSD) held its inaugural Jessie Donaldson Annual Lecture, with the University’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor sharing her journey from Mexico to Wales through an inspirational career in Academia.

Professor Elena Rodriguez-Falcon FREng spoke to a packed audience in the University’s Reading Room at Alex, Swansea College of Art, delivering a speech entitled “What’s the Worst that can Happen?”.

Drawing upon personal as well as professional challenges, the lecture explored how Professor Rodriguez-Falcon navigated a career pathway through various institutions by facing difficulties head on, keeping a steadfast focus on teaching, transforming and inspiring students’ lives by asking in the face of doubt: really, what’s the worst that can happen by having a go?

Raising the topic of sexuality in her lecture, she said: “In 2014 I learnt that approximately 1 in 5 people in engineering were not disclosing that they were part of the LGBTQ+ community, and that fact finally prompted me to say, and say very loudly… I am a gay female engineer.

“My journey up to that point had been changeable, accidental in a way. I took opportunities that presented themselves to me and thought, if it doesn’t work, I’ll learn from it.

“But taking control of my own narrative in this way was no accident at all. What was happening was that my passion for education in enterprise and engineering, my work to raise awareness of engineering to help women succeed, and my eventual commitment to using my own life to shine a light on problems faced by LGBTQ+ engineers was actually giving me a platform to succeed.

“And when I reflect on my successes, I realise that most of them happened when I was out, when I was me.”

The lecture was the first in a new annual series by UWTSD in collaboration with the University’s Women’s Network. It will take place on or around International Women’s Day each year, and is named after Jessie Donaldson, a Swansea woman who moved to America in the 1800s, risking fines and prison sentences to operate a safehouse for slaves escaping southern US states.

Professor Rodriguez-Falcon said: “It was a pleasure and an honour to address UWTSD staff and those from outside the University community for International Women’s Day 2023. One of the things I have learnt in life is that sometimes we women, and some men, don’t do very well at making ourselves visible – I found it very challenging at first.

“But someone once told me, ‘If you don’t communicate something, it doesn’t exist’. This was one of the most powerful lessons I have ever learnt, and since then I’ve been determined to give women opportunities and training to build confidence in their own visibility. It will help personally, it will help professionally, it will help students and it will help the University if women stand proud and show what they are capable of.”

Caroline Thraves, Academic Director of Swansea College of Art, said: “On behalf of UWTSD Women’s Network, we are delighted to support the first annual Jessie Donaldson Lecture for International Women’s Day 2023. In Swansea we are reminded of Jessie’s remarkable bravery each day as we walk past her Blue Plaque on the wall of our Dynevor Building.

“It’s fitting that in memory of one woman’s incredible achievements, we now shine a spotlight on those contemporary women whose actions are making a real impact in today’s world. Professor Rodriguez-Falcon is one of those women, and we are thrilled that she has shared her fascinating journey with us.”