Loyola University Chicago

Women's Studies and Gender Studies

Vanessa Cascio

Vanessa Cascio (she/her/hers) 

Graduation Year: 2006

Program/Degree: B.A. Double Major in Sociology & Women’s and Gender Studies  

Current Job/Position: Director of Safe Routes to School Initiatives at Living Street Alliance 

Where have you found yourself and what career goals have you pursued since graduating from Loyola? Where do you see yourself heading in the next several years?

     Upon graduating, I did not have a clear sense of what I wanted to accomplish with my degree, and now, fourteen years later my career goals continue to shift and take form in new ways. As a recent graduate, I found myself stumbling into the field of social work, working with women with developmental disabilities and ensuring that they had the resources to live their lives independently to the fullest extent possible. After several years in the field, I found myself wanting to change course as my work started to unveil much deeper systemic challenges in policies and practices that actually were barriers to the work.  After much pondering and consultation with the career office at Loyola (fantastic services available to alumni!), I decided to pursue a graduate degree in Public Health. After living a decade in Chicago, I moved home to Tucson to study and be near family once again. It was through the course of my studies and comparing my vastly different lived experiences in two different parts of the country that I became very interested in the intersection of public health and equitable planning practices as they relate to transportation and our built environment. After graduate school, I started working for a local grassroots, non-profit transportation advocacy organization where I am now the Director of Family & Youth Initiatives.  A large part of our work is developing innovative strategies for authentic community engagement in order to elevate marginalized voices who inform the policies and practices that shape our neighborhoods and public spaces. My background in Sociology/Women’s Studies/Public Health actually brings a really unique lens to the work, and I see a large part of my role as being a collector of stories, a connector of people, and an ally to build up the power of youth and families, and igniting conversations among people who have been left out of traditional planning processes.

How did the Women’s and Gender Studies (WSGS) program impact your career success and life overall?

     The program and my experience throughout my undergraduate studies instilled a strong social justice orientation to all my work. The theoretical underpinnings of WSGS actually have proven to be the most useful in my work as they contrast the technocratic approach often upheld in the traditional fields of planning. There has been a growing movement in city planning led by diverse leaders – people of color and women – working towards fundamental shifts in planning practices and process. I am inspired by this work which is calling on governments and planning agencies to center people’s lived experiences in project planning (especially of their neighborhoods and streets) and create new inclusive ways for people to have agency and participate in local decision-making processes. This is actually radical work which requires questioning the status quo and dismantling systems of oppressions, and I am constantly reminded and called upon the work of amazing WSGS scholars and activists as it all is so relevant to my work.

What was your favorite course/project you took part in whilst being a part of the WSGS program? 

     I believe at the time it was the Women’s Studies Capstone course taught by Dr. Prudence Moylan. It was while taking her class when I came to realize how the issues and theories in books applied to my own life, and it was one of the few times in my college career when a research project really sucked me in. My project was on Latina students and their experiences in Mundelein College. I remember learning to navigate old archives and learning the stories of women like me who were first generation college students trying to navigate this foreign world of academia. I loved thumbing through black and white photos, reading old college essays, and newsletters. But ultimately the project also served as a deep exercise of self-reflection and raised some of my own awareness of barriers that I had either been strong enough to overcome or had overcome by pure chance, and yet, others that I may never tackle because of our current system. 

Do you have any fond memories of your experience within the program? If so, please elaborate.

     Sitting in Dr. Susana Cavallo’s classes. I loved her courses, how she upheld women writers and made us all feel like valued partners in our learning.  

Do you feel as though your WSGS degree has guided you towards a more fulfilling career path? 

     Even though my path hasn’t been linear (I mean, whose is, right?) I think that so much of what I have come to learn along the way has been guided by my education, and WSGS provided an excellent philosophical and theoretical foundation from which I continue to build upon. 

In what ways has your WSGS education helped prepare you to be a more engaged global citizen and local neighbor? 

     Over the last seven years I have become increasingly involved in local political campaigns becoming highly attuned to decision-making happening in my own city. But this wasn’t always the case. I remember the first time speaking at a public meeting and becoming acutely aware of how intimidating that space felt to someone like me, even as an educated, English-speaking person. It was at this moment that I realized that very few people have a voice at the table, and I want to change that both in my professional and personal time. 

What advice would you offer to current or prospective WSGS students? 

     There are incredible professors in the department and my only regret is not having taken more initiative in forging better relationships with them. After having attended a large public institution for grad school, I realized how unique it is to have professors like those at Loyola who are accessible to you. Visit them during office hours and consult with them when you can. They are invaluable resources that can really help shape your experience.