Wendelin Choiniere: Embracing Leadership

Wendelin Choiniere of Brunswick, Maine, was one of 28 female college students to participate in the 2013 Maine NEW Leadership program at the University of Maine.

The free, six-day, public leadership training program aims to strengthen leadership skills, teach how to network and encourage running for public office. During the session, students visited the Statehouse in Augusta and Margaret Chase Smith Library in Skowhegan, and participated in workshops hosted by guests including state politicians, public leaders and members of the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center and UMaine faculty.

Choiniere, who will earn an associate degree in liberal studies from Southern Maine Community College this summer, plans to continue her education in the fall at UMaine’s Brunswick Engineering program, specializing in either biomedical or renewable energy.

How did you learn about the Maine NEW Leadership program? Why did you decide to participate?
I saw a flier in the Southern Maine Community College lobby and read a short description. After jotting down the website, I researched the opportunity to figure out if it was right for me. To be honest, I wasn’t sure if it was, but I sent in my application anyway. I trusted that if it was meant to be, the opportunity would materialize. Plus, I had the mentality that I would apply every year until they let me in. I applied and participated in the hope that I would learn new skills to allow me to be of greater service to my college and community.

What did you learn from the experience?
My eyes were opened wide to women’s issues. That may seem silly since I am a woman going into engineering — a career where women are notoriously underrepresented and underpaid — but I had no idea the depth of the issues, let alone the confidence to embrace the strength that comes from being a woman.

Before the conference, I thought the way to “get ahead” was to act like a man. The conference not only reiterated the need for community leaders, but also enlightened me to the skills that women leaders like myself bring to the table; traits such as compassion, communication and a natural instinct toward caring. Women innately understand the need for access to child care, education and health care.

Do you plan to participate in the program again? Why or why not?
My participation outside the conference week has already begun. A handful of women and I are part of a committee to organize an alumnae dinner. Just as I plan to be of service to my hometown and college, I plan to fully be of service to the NEW Leadership institute.

What makes this program important?
The NEW Leadership program plays an important role in strengthening our nation’s future. It is vital that women continue to represent — and grow in their representation — as leaders in businesses, organizations and governments.
NEW Leadership permeated me with strength and encouragement to seek such a role for myself whether it is within college, the workplace or Statehouse.

What was your favorite part of the conference?
Going to the Statehouse.

I was unaware that any Maine resident can walk into the Senate and House to watch while they are in session. The most enchanting part of it was the legislative bill on the docket when we walked into the Senate session. They were voting on an amendment to the child care subsidy program, which has been instrumental in allowing my husband and I to return to college to secure engineering degrees as student parents. The Senate was voting on a small change to the program.

As the Senate light board lit with yays or nays I was intently watching. The bill, which did pass, didn’t greatly alter our standing in the program but it was amazing to see the room at work and to know the senators’ votes trickle down to affect every citizen in some form or another.

That day, as I sat in the Senate, their vote had the potential to affect me. I understood that before, but the experience that day brought it to life.

What are your plans for after graduation?
This coming academic year, I am focusing on starting my engineering degree. I am dedicated to continuing through to a master’s degree, but where and in what, I am unsure.

The conference has put policymaking on my radar. I am interested to see a junction between an engineering background and energy policy; I definitely see one in advocating for STEM education policy.

Tell us about the scholarly pursuits you are involved in:
I am a member of the MidCoast Campus Club, MidCoast Technology Speaker Series Committee and NEW Leadership Alumnae Dinner Committee; staff assistant in the Center for Student Involvement and Leadership; and peer tutor in math and writing.

The midcoast campus I attend is rife with opportunity. It is located on the former Naval Air Base in Brunswick. When the base was decommissioned it transferred five buildings to Southern Maine Community College to open a new campus, which would house a premier composites program as well as the UMaine engineering program.

When I started attending classes, there were no student activities, organizations or work study positions available. I began to volunteer my time to be a visible presence on campus with a focus on encouraging extracurricular involvement.

Once I put myself out there, I quickly found other students who were as motivated as I was. We formed a student organization called the MidCoast Campus Club with the mission to bring student activities to campus.

Not long after I began my volunteer involvement, I was offered two work study jobs, one in the Center for Student Involvement and Leadership, and the other as a peer tutor.

Persistence can pay in the field you’re passionate for. I was told there would be no student work available but I wasn’t deterred from the purpose I believed in.

Beyond academics, what extracurricular activities occupy your time?
Children and yoga.

For me, academics, work and extracurricular come second to the biggest role of my life — being a mother. My husband, who is also an engineering student, and I adore our two children; Mason who is 3, and Madison who is 1.

It is said that life is a balancing act, as if all parts must remain equal, but I find this untrue in my experience as a mother. My family is the largest part of my life. So, when I spend time outside my home, I spend it doing things that enrich me as an individual and makes me stronger as a mother.

Affordable access to child care has been a blessing that has allowed me to have a full life with a mix of academics, work and time at home.

Being a student, parent and employee can come with its challenges, and to round it out, I did work exchange at a local yoga studio for the last year. I would clean the studio once a week and participate in yoga and meditation classes. Yoga gives me the tools I need to be present in all areas of my life whether I am engaged with my peers at school, my husband and children at home, or a clerk at a store.