05/29/2012 10:34 am ET Updated Jul 29, 2012

One Woman's Answer to the 'Old Boys' Network

My career path as a journalist, which began as an undergraduate student majoring in English at Brooklyn College, to becoming a published writer in leading publications and blogs 30 years later, certainly did not follow a strategically planned path to success. But as I sat in the audience at the 2nd Annual Elly Awards Luncheon benefiting the Education Fund of the Women's Forum of New York earlier this month, the fluctuations in my journalism career seemed to disappear before my eyes, as I wiped away the tears.

You see, the women selected as recipients of this year's Education Fund scholarships are being given the chance to attend City University of New York (CUNY) member colleges just as I had. So as I warmly recalled my first English professor acknowledging my writing as 'true talent,' I couldn't help but stand and applaud with excitement for the bright futures that now lie ahead for each of these awardees. "It's so much about the recognition," says Doris P. Meister, president -- U.S. markets -- BNY Mellon Wealth Management and president of the Women's Forum of New York, "Since women's work too often goes unnoticed."

And I couldn't agree more. While recognition for my future started as a college freshman in 1977, the futures of these scholarship recipients actually began a few years earlier in 1973, when Elinor (Elly) Guggenheimer, the first female member of the New York City Planning Commission and a passionate and committed activist in city politics, was supporting candidates for mayor and for president of the city council in the Democratic primaries. Asked to represent the male candidates at a meeting with young women who claimed to speak for the women of New York, she quickly agreed. But her anger already began to brew, first directed at the candidates who didn't think it was important enough to accept the invitation themselves, and then at the six young women who asked questions that portrayed their complete lack of knowledge of city government. Leaving the meeting muttering 'we have to do something,' the next morning she decided to move forward on an idea whose time had come. Determined to create an organization to include a critical mass of women of achievement who occupied leading positions, just as the 'old boys' network' had long existed for men, the Women's Forum of New York was born, built upon a community where preeminent New York women leaders of diverse achievement would come together to make a difference for each other and take an active, leadership role in matters of importance to all women.

And one of the matters of most importance from the start was the education of women, a goal particularly close to Elly's heart. Ten years later, the Education Fund was therefore launched as an educational and charitable arm of the Women's Forum of New York and, today, the Fund is celebrating a quarter century of helping mature women pursue educational goals and enhance their capacities to provide productive and supportive services to their communities. The grants, each in the amount of $10,000, are awarded to women over the age of 35 who, after an interruption in their education, are now pursuing undergraduate college degrees, recognized for their extraordinary and often heroic efforts in overcoming adversity under the most daunting of odds. "The return on investment is unquestionable" says, Beverly Beaudoin, president of the Education Fund, "Educate a woman, and you impact generations."

Just ask a couple of the 2011 awards recipients, like Esther Arden, who graduated from Kingsborough Community College and is now attending Brooklyn College on a path to earn an M.S. in Occupation Therapy. After she arrived in the U.S. in 1993, she married in 2001 and gave birth to her first son who was born with a rare brain defect, causing his death at the tender age of 2. After her second son was born in 2006 with Down Syndrome, she knew she had to ensure a better future for herself and her son, so Esther returned to school to study Health Sciences at Kingsborough Community College. With the help of financial aid and an award from the Education Fund, Esther has now moved on to major in Biology at Brooklyn College. "I remain determined to achieve my goal of being a success in my own eyes, while honoring the people I love and making a worthwhile contribution to this world," Esther says.

For Liliette Lopez, her path was also not an easy one. Born blind, she was not allowed to attend school in her native Communist country of Nicaragua since people with disabilities weren't allowed to be educated. Despite her disability and lack of a formal education, however, Liliete arrived in the U.S. and attended school for the first time at age 15, completed her GED, obtained her Associate's Degree at Hostos Community College and is currently double majoring in Political Science and Urban Studies in a B.A. program at Queens College, thanks to the help of the Education Fund. Through her experiences, she has discovered how people with disabilities are capable of participating fully in society while educating the college community about issues concerning students with disabilities. "I take my education very seriously and do not let anything, including my visual disability, get in my way," Liliette says.

But perhaps the most empowering quote of all actually comes from the woman herself, Elly Guggenheimer, for whom the award is named. At the occasion of her 88th birthday on April 11, 2000, she wrote a speech that amusingly retells her mother's response to her birth:
"(My) Mother said, "She's a positive pearl but her hair doesn't curl,
and I didn't expect to give birth to a girl.
I'd have much more joy if she'd just been a boy."

... to which Elly retorted...

"What I wanted to add today is a joy
And now I am glad that I wasn't a boy...
As well as you wonderful friends whom I treasure.
Being female is, at least every 88 years, a definite

Actually, Elly, the pleasure is all ours.

Lori Sokol, PhD. is an educational psychologist and the founder/publisher of Work Life Matters magazine.