Rosemary, Tahina and Kiki in a grid of three headshots
Category: Spirit of Georgetown

Title: ‘We Belong Here’: How 3 Women Leaders Found Pride, Joy and Solidarity at Georgetown

Rosemary Kilkenny stands in front of a bookshelf wearing a white dress

“I always tell people that I’ve been here all my life.”

Rosemary Kilkenny (L’87), Georgetown’s vice president, diversity, equity & inclusion and chief diversity officer, was born at Georgetown Hospital — in Georgetown, Guyana. 

Kilkenny’s “Georgetown” connections do not end there. She first joined university in 1983 as special assistant to the president for affirmative action programs. She pursued her law degree at Georgetown Law in the evenings, taking time off only to care for her newborn son — a son who would go on to attend Georgetown himself, even earning a spot on the men’s basketball team. Kilkenny became Georgetown’s first vice president for institutional diversity, equity and affirmative action in 2006 and the university’s first chief diversity officer in 2019. Her tenure at Georgetown has spanned three university presidents — Timothy S. Healy, S.J., Leo J. O’Donovan, S.J., and John J. DeGioia. 

“I love Georgetown,” she says.

Rosemary Kilkenny

Guyana to Ohio

Growing up in Guyana, Kilkenny was used to seeing people of color in positions of power. Though she says Guyana is not without its own prejudices or inequities, Kilkenny appreciated growing up in a multicultural society. 

“You look around and you see people who look like me as the prime minister of the country, people who look like me are the president of the bank, people who look like me are the head ministries or the headmaster of a school,” she says. “You see yourself in all walks of life.”

Kilkenny’s family moved to Ohio in 1970, and she began attending college when she was just 16. But her experience as a Black woman was different in the United States compared to Guyana. 

“Things in this country seem to be defined more by the color of your skin and by race than it did in Guyana,” she says. “That was really my introduction to racial difference.”

“We have to reimagine and make these changes to truly transform our campuses, identify those barriers and eliminate them.”

— Rosemary Kilkenny

Kilkenny also came of age at a time when Black pride was an especially poignant and a celebrated source of culture, community and belonging. 

“The beautiful thing about this country at that time in my life was James Brown’s song ‘Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud,’” she says. “That song became the watchword, a rallying cry, and people were wearing Afros and the dashiki, and it was a very, very exciting time in the United States.”

‘An Institutional Imperative’

Kilkenny has channeled those experiences into her leadership to make Georgetown a more inclusive home for students and scholars of color for nearly 40 years. Most recently, she has been involved with efforts to create a long-term and ongoing process related to slavery, memory and reconciliation and led the launch of the first-of-its-kind cultural climate survey, which aimed to examine, understand and improve campus environments among students.

“I see diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) as an institutional imperative,” says Kilkenny. “It’s also a collaborative effort.”

Kilkenny will continue her collaboration across the university as additional staff are hired to DEI positions and the university continues to innovate its curriculum and cultivate belonging among all students. 

“We have to reimagine and make these changes to truly transform our campuses, identify those barriers and eliminate them,” she says.

Maj. Tahina Montoya (G’23)

A man walks next to his son next to his wife holding their baby in a park outside
Tahina Montoya (G’23) pictured with her family in Panama City, Panama. Photo by Ilyana Picans.

In 2019, Tahina Montoya (G’23) was facing several major life transitions all at the same time. 

After a 12-year career in the Air Force, she was transitioning into the Air Force Reserves and beginning her doctorate degree in Georgetown’s School of Continuing Studies. She was also nine months pregnant — and a few months away from moving to Panama.

Transitioning out of the military had been a roller coaster, she says.

“I was Maj. Tahina Montoya — and I still am, in the Reserves — but what comes after that?” she says. “It was extremely stressful. As much as I tried to convince myself that I didn’t identify with a service or rank, I quickly realized it had become such a big part of me.”

Three years later, Montoya is reaching out to fellow veterans at Georgetown, many of whom are navigating their transition out of the military, too.

Montoya is the vice president of Women Vets @ GU, an extension of the Georgetown University Student Veterans Association (GUSVA), created to build a safe space and support system for women veterans on the Hilltop. The group offers events, workshops, meet-ups and resources for women veterans.

“I want to let other women veterans at Georgetown know that there is a space for us. We belong here. We’re not alone.”

— Tahina Montoya (G’23)

“For many of us our journey at Georgetown is part of our transition, and it often coincides with a very challenging time where we’re trying to jump back into academics while rebranding ourselves and navigating life after active duty,” she says. “My hope is to create a safe space to network with others who are going through the same thing.” 

Ground and Air Support

Montoya has been connecting with and advocating for underrepresented groups and for women in the military since she graduated high school in Lowell, Massachusetts. After her time in the Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) — which she joined after being told she was “too girly” and “too Latina” to get in — she formed a scholarship with her parents for hard-working cadets in her community. 

Once she commissioned in the Air Force in 2008, Montoya found unique ways to get more involved. She applied to the Language Enabled Airman’s Program (LEAP), which matches servicemembers with language capabilities with missions that require specific language and cultural skills, and sought opportunities to volunteer. She raised money for beds and coats for kids and the elderly in Kyrgyzstan, helped promote health and fitness in Nicaragua and supported humanitarian missions for the U.S. Embassy in Bogota, Colombia — an experience that eventually led to supporting counter narcotic operations throughout the Western Hemisphere for the Joint-Interagency Task Force-South (JIATF-S).

“It was a great opportunity to leverage my cultural and language capabilities in a mission that really valued who I was as a person and what I offered,” she says of her time in JIATF-S. 

A year after she transitioned from active duty to the reserves, Montoya began serving as the Women Veterans Policy Fellow for the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, where she worked to improve the experiences of women veterans transitioning out of the military. She now volunteers for two of the Department of the Air Force Barrier Analysis Working Groups, the Women’s Initiative Team (WIT) and the Hispanic Empowerment & Advancement Team (HEAT), to identify barriers underrepresented service members face and removing those barriers through policy change.

‘We Belong Here’

In Georgetown’s Doctor of Liberal Studies program, Montoya is researching how the epistemology of the Guna, a matrilineal Indigenous group from Panama and Colombia, shapes the self-identity of Guna women and how this is translated through their material art (molas). She is also a program advisor for the Georgetown Institute of Women, Peace & Security’s graduate certificate program, which she hopes to connect more women veterans to, she says.

“A lot of us who are transitioning from the military are searching for something equally as purposeful,” she says. “Finding that is tough, and a world-wide pandemic just added another layer of stress to those of us in the thick of transition from active duty. Through the School of Continuing Studies, I was able to do something productive and build a new network. Both have helped me on my transition from the military.”

Montoya still considers herself in transition from the military and is still figuring out her next steps. But she will continue to leverage her insights from her military career to advocate for marginalized communities and for women veterans.

“I’ve found that a lot of our experiences bring value to the classroom because we have such unique perspectives,” she says. “And I want to let other women veterans at Georgetown know that there is a space for us. We belong here. We’re not alone.”

Kiki Schmalfuss (NHS’22)

Kiki wears a gray Georgetown sweatshirt while outside in front of a blooming tree with Healy Hall in the background

While learning virtually at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Kiki Schmalfuss (NHS’22) got a surprising email from Patrick Johnson, associate teaching professor in the Department of Physics — her professor for an upcoming class.

The email explained how Johnson planned to implement the accommodations Schmalfuss receives for her disability. Schmalfuss recalls how thoroughly he considered what had worked for other students in the past, how he could best implement accommodations for Schmalfuss’ individual needs and how they could adapt as the class progressed — even before they ever met.

“In that moment, I felt so at peace,” says Schmalfuss. “I was so appreciative, realizing that this is how it is supposed to go. This is how I feel cared for in this space.”

Solidary, Pride, Community

Born and raised in Gainesville, Florida, Schmalfuss is studying global health with a minor in disability studies. In her first-year disability studies seminar, Schmalfuss felt connected to other members of the disability community at Georgetown, and she and several of her peers co-founded the Georgetown Disability Alliance (GDA) in 2019.

“We had so many shared experiences that we didn’t even realize just from being disabled students at Georgetown, which for me was really powerful — to just feel that solidarity and have people to fall back on,” says Schmalfuss. “This is something that we can be proud of. This is something that we can build a community around.”

Schmalfuss wants to make her experience with Professor Johnson and the connection she shares with her classmates the norm for Georgetown students with disabilities. Her work with the GDA has included accessibility training for other student groups; a workshop with faculty to offer tips for making their classrooms more accessible; and collaboration with administrators to provide resources to disabled students — especially in the virtual environment.

In response to the advocacy of GDA and other student leaders, Georgetown is launching a Disability Cultural Initiative, which will support, educate and empower disabled community members of all cultures, races, sexual orientations, genders and ages.

“We had so many shared experiences that we didn’t even realize just from being disabled students at Georgetown, which for me was really powerful — to just feel that solidarity and have people to fall back on. This is something that we can be proud of. This is something that we can build a community around.”

— Kiki Schmalfuss

Through her advocacy work and academic experience, Schmalfuss has felt more connected to her disability identity — and the Georgetown community.

“Something that’s led by professors is very different from something that’s led by students,” she says. “But that combination of the two has been really, really integral to me feeling at home at Georgetown.”

Disabled Women in STEM

As a global health major, Schmalfuss has been especially interested in the reproductive health of disabled women. As Schmalfuss has progressed in her academic and professional pursuits, she has been inspired and supported by the disabled women who have learned with her in the classroom — especially as they study in the male-dominated science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) field.

“Being a woman, you’re always kind of underestimated, and then on top of that, adding this disability identity to it really adds to being underestimated, being belittled in a lot of ways,” says Schmalfuss. “But at the same time, I feel like I’ve made a lot of community through other women with disabilities in STEM.”

Schmalfuss has found strength in her communities at Georgetown, which she attributes to learning from not just people like her but from people who are not like her, too.

“Community in diversity means a shared commitment to create intentional space for different identity groups, for different people,” says Schmalfuss. “I think that’s super powerful in creating a deeper community and getting to bring all these different viewpoints together and create strength in that.”