The first thing that catches one’s attention about Derlina Dias is her smile. It is not forced or shown as an act of politeness, but rather is authentic and inviting. She is warm, is not afraid to pull you in for a hug and is able to make you feel like you are old pals. When it comes to talking about feminism, however, she is fierce.
She remembers reading about Virginia Woolf in community college and finally putting a name to her passion for equality. “I want to stop the notion that feminists are supposed to be hairy and hate men and all that stuff. No, you can do whatever you want. If you want to hate men you can hate men, but it’s not like that for everyone. I like to dress like this and that doesn’t mean I’m not a feminist. I still want equal rights for people,” Dias said.
I want people to be able to speak up. If you don’t like the way your teacher is looking at you, for example, you should be able to say that. – Derlina Dias
Dias came to the United States at age 17 to escape stereotypes, for she knew there was more to life than what the culture in the Dominican Republic imposed on her. She did not want to just be a housewife and take care of children. “I wanted to be my own person and not depend on anybody. I want to have the same opportunities everyone else has.”
As a senior a majoring in Family and Child Studies with a concentration in Family Services, she also wants to be able to help children. She had a troubled childhood, but Dias said she used this as motivation to help children without a voice of their own. “In my country, the dynamic of parent [and] child is very different. Children just do what the parents tell them [and] they don’t have their own voice. I’m not saying they can do whatever they want, but they should be able to have an opinion on things.”
Jonathan Caspi, Director of Family Child Studies at Montclair State University, describes Dias is a passionate student that “contributed to the classroom environment with a sense of humor.”
When talking to Dias, she maintains an aura of controlled energy that her friend Jose Cortéz describes perfectly; “Here’s somebody that doesn’t take no for an answer. She may seem like a shy person at first, but, if you put her in a room, she is fully capable to work a crowd.”
As vice president of the organization Femvolution, Dias has helped in the process to change Montclair State University’s sexual assault policy. The decision came after hearing about Columbia University student Emma Sulkowicz, who carried a mattress around her campus to protest the college’s inaction in her case. With the support of the New Jersey United Students, Femvolution collected signatures from campus to update the sexual assault policy. Dias said Montclair State’s “policy wasn’t specific about who is included” and, that with the update, they wanted to “change the wording so everyone, [including] transgender, gay and undocumented students, knows they can go and be helped.”
After delivering the letter to the president’s office last semester, Femvolution received a response within a day. “The fact that [we] met with them and other members of the organization was good,” Dias said. But, they have not had the second meeting school officials had promised. She said Femvolution will be writing to the Dean of Students next and will keep pushing for the change to be official.
I want to stop the notion that feminists are supposed to be hairy and hate men and all that stuff. No, you can do whatever you want. If you want to hate men you can hate men, but it’s not like that for everyone. I like to dress like this and that doesn’t mean I’m not a feminist. I still want equal rights for people. – Derlina Dias
The change in the document is important because it will also be changing the definition for sexual assault to include harassment. “I want people to be able to speak up. If you don’t like the way your teacher is looking at you, for example, you should be able to say that.”
When talking about the future, Dias sits a bit straighter and changes her conversational tone to a more serious one. At 23 years old, she has a 5-year plan and a 10-year plan. In the next five years, she plans on going to graduate school and networking with people that could help her with her biggest life goal. “I want to build a school in the Dominican Republic with a special needs section. It would be inclusive, bilingual and for underprivileged kids.”
In ten years, she expects to have three of these schools around the country fully functioning. “I’d like to have people from there to work on it so it can also create jobs and include teachers from the country as well.”
Everyone that she has told about the project has expressed interest and offered words of encouragement, which really mean a lot to her. Professor Caspi says she is someone that “makes things happen.”