UCI Women’s Center Counts Its Successes

Times Staff Writer

Her youngest daughter had just been graduated from high school in 1980 when Carol Blanchard of Irvine decided to re-enter the work force.

Newly separated after 23 years of marriage, the mother of two children figured the only option available to her was a return to teaching.

But Blanchard wanted to do something else.

So, like thousands of Orange County women before her and thousands after her, she turned to the Women’s Opportunities Center at UC Irvine, an educational and personal-support organization designed for women entering the work force or changing careers.


In the center’s job-seekers workshop, Blanchard learned how to produce a resume that focused on her strengths and talents--assets that included 20 years of volunteer fund-raising leadership and organizational work for community groups.

“I learned how to go out and do interviews in new areas of the work world,” said Blanchard. She had interviews with the managers and account executives of hotels, insurance companies, a paper company and various city governments.

Then she heard about an entry-level position as assistant director of development at Chapman College in Orange, a job in which she could tap the experience and contacts she had developed while doing volunteer work.

Blanchard was hired and eventually promoted to director of development. She credits the Women’s Opportunities Center for helping her make a successful mid-life career change.

“It gave me direction and confidence to go out and look for something different and bring out the best in myself,” said Blanchard, who left Chapman College in August and is now doing consulting work for a national nonprofit organization and several local organizations.

She also has returned to the Women’s Opportunities Center, where she is taking a workshop for women in transition and another on career exploration.

And, as a way of paying back the center for helping her, Blanchard is now using her fund-raising expertise as a volunteer on a committee planning a major benefit for the center.

The dinner, scheduled for Oct. 19 at the UCI Bren Events Center, will honor and celebrate the accomplishments of nine Orange County women who either serve as role models or have created opportunities for women.

The event is part of a major capital campaign the Women’s Opportunities Center is launching to fund construction of a new 4,000-square-foot facility next to the Alumni House in the University Extension complex. In support of the project, University Extension has pledged $450,000, and UCI has allocated the land. To raise additional funds, the center will sponsor several fund-raising events throughout the year and is aiming for a ground-breaking ceremony next winter.

Over the past 19 years, the Women’s Opportunities Center has served more than 50,000 people. An average of 500 people a month participate in the center’s vast array of workshops and counseling services.

Success stories abound:

There’s Judy Howard of Costa Mesa, who took the center’s Managerial Skills Certificate Program after staying at home to raise her children and is now director of an adult retirement village in Irvine.

There’s Karen Packer, who went through the job-seekers clinic and used her many years of experience as a volunteer in Democratic politics to land a middle-management job at Edward’s Laboratory in Irvine. She then went into advertising at Beckman Instruments in Fullerton and is now working in advertising in North Carolina.

There’s Kim Israelsky of Irvine, who was new to Orange County when she signed up for the job-seekers clinic. When she went out on the required informational interview--the course requires participants to get their feet wet by meeting with an employer in a field they may be interested in--Israelsky was hired on the spot by St. John Knits of Irvine. The company created a job for her selling a line of matching accessories.

And there’s the out-of-state woman, who was recently divorced from her doctor husband and living out of the family station wagon with her two young children when she entered the program. Given a scholarship to the job-seekers clinic, she landed a job as a medical technologist and later found similar work in Oregon.

After two decades of operation, the center is not only still going strong, it is, as administrator and volunteer coordinator Gabrielle Hickling says, “bursting at the seams.”

Currently operating out of a cramped, 700-square-foot office in the University Extension building, the center must hold its workshops and classes in increasingly limited “borrowed space” at the university and in nearby churches and libraries.

In a county rated as the 16th largest economy in the world and the fifth largest high-tech complex in the United States, center officials say the demand for career planning and job-training resources is burgeoning.

“On one end of the spectrum we help keep women off of welfare, and on the other end we counsel women in top-management positions,” said Elaine Hart, the center’s executive director. “Once we have larger facilities, we’ll immediately be able to triple the amount of clients we serve. We have the professional staff, and we have the clients. Our problem is we are limited by space only.”

Hart said the center has clients who come from as far away as Los Angeles, Riverside and San Diego counties. She said they also have received inquiries from around the country--and even from Sweden--requesting information on how to start a similar program.

The Women’s Opportunities Center was formed in 1970 after the late Alice (Lou) Anderson, who was University Extension’s program director for humanities, and Sylvia Lenhoff (now director of the university’s Office of Relations With Schools and Colleges) noticed an increasing number of women returning to school and trying to enter the work force.

“Both Sylvia and Lou felt these women needed support on the university campus as they were returning back to school much older than the average student,” said Hart. “They also needed counseling about the kinds of classes that would give them the most direct route to what they wished to accomplish. And then, as they became successful in their studies, these women realized they needed career counseling as well.”

Although the center’s focus has always been on women, it is open to everyone. However, only 2% of the clients are men, most of whom come to the center for Career and Vocational Aptitude Testing, a 4-hour battery of tests that helps determine job suitability.

The center is funded through membership fees ($25 a year), nominal fees charged for workshops and seminars, community donations and corporate grants. Since it is nonprofit, Hart said, fees are often reduced and waived at the request of clients in need.

The center, which has no full-time staff members--even Hart and Hickling work part time--boasts a staff of 76 volunteer professionals from a variety of fields who run workshops, counsel clients and serve as support staff.

The center offers counseling on all levels--from career and educational awareness to the legal aspects of divorce, a course taught by Corona del Mar attorney Pat Herzog. “We’re just really blessed with having a lot of community support from professionals who donate their services to us to help these people,” said Hart.

Among several dozen workshop topics offered throughout the year are: self-esteem, self-awareness, assertion training, overcoming computer anxiety, exploring new career options, “Women Who Love Too Much” and “Do I Want a Divorce?”

Two of the center’s most popular offerings are the job-seekers clinic and the Managerial Skills Certificate Program, which Hart says helps women put themselves in “a position where they will be able to break through into more management type of responsibilities.” The program requires taking six core classes offered through University Extension in addition to 26 Saturday classes dealing with practical issues of management taught by Joan Klubnik, a career specialist with TransAmerica Occidental Insurance Co. in Los Angeles. The next orientation meeting to explain the program will be held at the center from 6 to 8 p.m. on March 16.

In recent years, Hart has become aware of an increasing number of working women who want to make career changes.

“We’re seeing some of those women we saw in the ‘70s who wanted to go back to school and get started in a career now wanting to change careers or go on into higher management positions,” she said. “Working Women magazine says 52% of the work force now is women and only about 6% (of them) are top managers. We’re working to help those women maximize their potential, to reach as high in their careers as possible. We do the same for men, but they don’t seem to need us as much as women do. It’s a new game for women.

“I think the center has been really instrumental in Orange County in helping women to network successfully. Those who have made it are reaching down to the hands of their sister and helping her up the ladder, too.”

Hart, who started at the center as a volunteer in 1974 and has been executive director since 1983, said the feeling in the beginning was that the Women’s Opportunities Center eventually would be phased out.

“That’s what we had hoped--that we would meet a temporary need--but with the growing number of dual-career families and the high cost of living in this area, more and more women have to work,” she said. “The need will always be there.”