What started out as a way to defray college costs evolved into a two-decade career advocating for students on college campuses. Melissa Wintrow once worked as a resident assistant at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, where she earned her undergraduate degree in English in 1988. In return for coordinating student activities and offering peer guidance, the school covered her room and board. It was there that she learned how to foster a community, as well as how to deal with crises like physical abuse and sexual assault against female students.
This experience was vital when the self-proclaimed feminist was hired to establish the Women's Center at Boise State. Wintrow took the job at Boise State as the Women's Center coordinator in 2000. Today she is the assistant director for residential education and marketing at the university.
When did you first come to Boise?
In 1996, I rode my bicycle across the United States. I did that with two men and I think [it is] one of the greatest achievements of my entire life, that I made it across 4,000 miles from the Pacific to the Atlantic. During the bike trip we came through Boise. We rode downtown and there was just nothing there. But even so ... I remember saying, "Gosh, this is a cute town. I could live here." It's the only place I said it in the entire trip.
My husband was on that trip and [before the bicycle journey], we never knew each other, we just met through mutual friends. I was working at Michigan State. After that trip, we started to be friends and have a long-distance relationship until finally, in '98, I quit my job at Michigan State and moved west because he was finishing law school in Portland, Ore. We lived here for the summer, then we moved to Portland and I didn't have a job. Long story short: I miraculously found a job within a week at Portland State. He finished his degree and was offered a job here in Boise. And I said, "Well, there's a college there, maybe I'll find a job."
How did you get started at the Women's Center?
When we moved here, the vice president of Portland State did a letter of introduction [on my behalf] to the vice president here, and she was gracious enough to meet with me. When we spoke she was like, "Well, with your credentials and your interest we're actually going to create a women's center, and that will be in the next year. Keep your eyes open, you should apply for that." That was in 1999 and I was hired in 2000.
I've been a feminist since my sophomore year in college. I have a degree in Student Affairs. It was a natural fit. Even my friends were like, "Holy smoke, you're going to get paid to be a feminist, isn't that cool?"
What did you do at the Women's Center?
The biggest service I think we created was for sexual assault survivors. When I first started there ... my supervisor at the time was surprised when I told him there was a woman that walked in needing services because she'd been raped. He was like, "I didn't realize the Women's Center would be used that way."
I remember one student [during] my last year who I'd worked with from March until September, almost every day. It was a situation where she had no support. She was married. She was from out of the country. She was in a pretty serious situation. She decided to escape when she overheard her husband and brother-in-law talk about kidnapping her.
She's now working in another state. She's still in the country, she's got a work visa, her family is safe. The guy has backed off. She got a legal divorce and she got some money. But it's those kinds of services that never existed, so we created them.
How did you end up in the Housing Department?
I started out as a student in a residence hall. I became a resident assistant because I had to put myself through school, and resident assistant pays your room and board. I thought, "Wow, this'll be a great job," because I didn't like mundane work ... cashiering or something like that. When I was graduating, my supervisor said, "You're really good at this. You should go to graduate school and get a degree in higher education. That's where you should be."
So I went to the University of Georgia, was a graduate hall director, got my degree. Again, they paid for that degree because you get a tuition waive and a stipend. So again, I was able to get an education while I was working and not have to put money up front. Most of what I learned in residence hall I transferred into the Women's Center with a feminist perspective.
After graduate school in Georgia, I got my first job at Eastern Michigan and I was working as a full-time hall director. I did that for three years and loved it. Then I went to Michigan State and I was a complex director there for a thousand students living in the halls, and supervising staff and again doing all the crisis management. But that's where, too, I was doing a lot more sexual assault advocacy. That's where I started to utilize some of the feminist knowledge with crisis management in helping people.
What are your current duties?
When I moved over in 2005, I ... supervised all the resident directors, the R.A.s [resident assistants], student conduct, crisis management, all that. Then we got a new director in my second year here and he wanted to focus more on learning. So I'm doing education. My main job is to create learning communities—smaller groups of students grouped by theme or academic major or discipline. In the Living-Learning program ... they basically create a classroom for the living environment. Upstairs [for example], there are 23 students living in a community called civic leadership. They all live together and there's a faculty member that has an apartment [on the same floor]. That faculty member creates a syllabus, just like a class, and says in order to get this credit, we're going to meet once a week like a class would. The university says if you have one credit, you would have two hours of homework. The homework is not reading a book or doing a paper necessarily, it's going to do community service, [or] going to an event. So it's really experiential education. It's pretty innovative.
It's interesting how your career has been built upon your initial desire to save money while putting yourself through college.
The thing it's taught me is it's really important to have goals, certainly. But if you're not open to the journey on the way, then you might miss some paths that you would have never decided to walk down. When I quit my job at Michigan State, I was terrified. I sold all my belongings. I had never engaged in a live-in relationship with anyone. Here I am traveling across the country, [leaving my entire family behind]. But I kept saying, just be open to the journey. The goal might change, the road might shift, but don't freak out about it. Just go with it.