In observance of Women’s History Month, we would like to share the contributions of Melanie Deffendall and the Irma Thomas Center for Women in Search of Excellence (W.I.S.E.) Women. Women’s History Month is an annual celebration that honors the achievements of women of yesterday and today for the entire month of March.
The Irma Thomas Center for W.I.S.E. (Women in Search of Excellence) Women is the brainchild of Melanie Deffendall, Delgado Community College’s Assistant Professor of Sociology and Coordinator of College and Career Success Skills (CCSS). When Deffendall noticed a larger percentage of female students on Delgado’s City Park Campus she also saw a need to start a program for women. “Delgado is 70 percent female and we had nothing to help females stay in school,” said Deffendall.
The initial program was a six-week speaker series that attracted about 30 to 50 enthusiastic women on Saturday mornings. Because of the success of the series, Deffendall realized that the program needed a permanent home. So with Deffendall’s persistence to find an actual space to house the women’s program, the Irma Thomas Center for W.I.S.E. Women became a reality in 2003.
After acquiring a place, the center needed a name, so Deffendall asked singer and Delgado graduate Irma Thomas if the center could be named after her. “Irma Thomas has lived the life that many of our female students have lived,” said Deffendall. Thomas had three children while she was still a teenager and had to juggle her time between work and school. “Thomas comes about once a month to talk to the ladies—as she calls them,” Deffendall said. One of those talks led to a student gaining the confidence to enroll in nursing school.
People come into the center everyday needing help with all sorts of issues. One student in particular who stood out was a young female student who didn’t have the balance necessary to hold her classes or a credit card to put on file to create a payment installment plan for the remaining balance of her tuition fees. All she needed was $8 to hold her classes, so Deffendall loaned her the money and had the student look her in the eye and promise her that if she put the tuition on her credit card that the student would pay back every cent with a monthly payment on the same day once a month until it was paid out. The student agreed. Later, Deffendall got a call from the student asking her for a reference to get a job to earn the money to pay Deffendall back, and of course, Deffendall obliged. The student got the job and every month on the same day the student came to the office to pay her bill until it was paid off. At the beginning of the current semester, the student stopped by to visit Deffendall with a thank you card that read, “I wouldn’t be in school if it wasn’t for you.” Deffendall noticed the student’s transformation to a more confident responsible person. “One person can make a difference,” said Deffendall.
Deffendall doesn’t have any huge plans for the center except to continue what she is doing right now such as sponsoring Crafty Fridays, HIV Testing, and other educational programs, but most importantly, the center will continue to be available as a place where female students can come together regularly to talk, get to know each other, bond, and study.
Like many other Delgado students, Deffendall returned to school at the age of 35 to pursue a bachelor’s and master’s degree in sociology from the University of New Orleans (UNO). Deffendall always wanted to teach, but when she initially came to Delgado in 1996 there were no openings so she started out working in Veterans Upward Bound. Eventually she was offered an opportunity to teach in Human Development (HUDV). As time went on HUDV changed to CCSS. In addition to a new and improved name, the program received a better textbook and curriculum. “The students who take this course and pass it successfully pass their other courses at a 24 to 34 percent higher rate,” said Deffendall.
Deffendall goes through a variety of emotions teaching at the college day-to-day from comedy to tragedy. “It’s very fulfilling because we give students hope and that doesn’t cost anything,” said Deffendall. “It’s not always about money; sometimes it’s about encouragement.” Deffendall’s purpose is to help other people help themselves. She’s had so many people tell her that nobody else but her believed in them. “I always tell my students ‘my success is your success,’” said Deffendall, very humbly.