Montclair State University held the “12th Annual Evangelina Menendez Women’s History Month Celebration and Trailblazer Awards” on Sunday, March 26 in its Memorial Auditorium. Hosted by New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez, the event included a keynote speech by Hillary Clinton and honored five women from New Jersey who have positively impacted their communities.
The event kicked off with a reading of “We Rise” by Amanda Gorman, accompanied by a performance by Elements of Style Dance Company.
Hillside Mayor Dahlia Vertreese, who was the M.C. for the event, began by explaining how the event would run and the importance of recognizing women’s achievements. She introduced the Honor Guard from Seton Hall University, as well as Daisy Troop 98681 and Brownie Troop 98035 who led attendees in the pledge of allegiance.
After, President Jonathan Koppell spoke about the importance of public service, accessibility and inclusivity, especially on campus.
“This is a university dedicated to public service,” Koppell said. “We are committed to designing ourselves to be accessible, inclusive and excellent while promoting serving our community as our core value.”
Congresswoman Mikie Sherrill spoke next, expressing gratitude to Evangelina Menendez.
“If it wasn’t for Evangelina, if it wasn’t for her determination to leave Cuba, to create a better life for her family, if it wasn’t for her grueling work as a seamstress, for her perseverance in a new nation, if it wasn’t for her working hard to raise her children with respect for her work, and that same perseverance and education, we wouldn’t have our senator, [Menendez,] here today,” Sherrill said.
Sherrill went on, acknowledging the strides Clinton has made for women everywhere. Sherrill recognized the trailblazing effect Clinton has had, such as impacting the congresswoman’s own work in combatting military sexual assault and the lack of childcare in the country.
Menendez then spoke about the attacks on women’s rights going on across the country.
“Just as we celebrate 100 years since the Equal Rights Amendment was first proposed in Congress, we must redouble our efforts to protect fundamental rights that are under assault,” Menendez said. “Just as we honor five incredible trailblazers today, we must acknowledge that all of us have a responsibility to create a truly equal America that we deserve.”
He continued on, promising that he will always advocate for a woman’s right to choose, a sentiment that was greeted by loud applause.
Menendez also spoke about his mother, who inspired him, and for whom he named and created this event, as well as invoking other inspiring women such as Nancy Pelosi, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor.
“In each of their ways, each of these trailblazing women have overcome obstacles and raised the bar of what is possible for little girls in America,” Menendez said.
Menendez then welcomed Clinton to the stage.
Clinton spoke of the advancements made for women, reminding the audience that when in the year her mother was born, women across the country were not able to vote. And that when Clinton herself was in college and law school she was unable to open her own credit card and had she become pregnant, could have been victim to discriminatory laws that would not protect her from unemployment.
“All the changes that we see, that have been so beautifully addressed by the mayor, and the congresswoman and the senator, have taken place in a relatively short period of time,” Clinton said.
However, all of this progress has not stopped others from attempting to halt it.
“For every advance that we have made, and thank goodness they have been so quick and so positive over so many years, we are living now, at a time where there is a concerted effort to push women aside,” Clinton said.
With everything going on in the current political landscape, Clinton expressed her desire for women to continue to fight for their rights to be codified as well as practiced, in all areas of life.
With Clinton’s powerful speech resounding in the audience’s mind, Menendez then called up the honorees of his award.
The first awardee, Lourdes Cortez, was honored for growing the North Jersey Federal Credit Union, in turn helping small business accounts to grow, and for supporting non-profits.
Menendez then presented an award to Amanda Devecka-Rinear, who has been instrumental in helping those who have been affected by natural disasters.
Devecka-Rinear has also successfully helped advocate for educational needs, such as preserving the cost of in-state tuition and facilitating funding for the construction of schools in New York City.
Another awardee was Christine Girtain, the 2022-2023 New Jersey State Teacher of the Year. As a science teacher, Girtain has helped students explore their interests, which has in turn helped them achieve over $185,000 in grants to fund their research projects.
The youngest honoree was A’Dorian Murray-Thomas who was elected to the Newark Board of Education at the age of 23. Murray-Thomas founded SHE Wins, a mentoring and leadership program for girls who lost someone to gun violence to help them prepare for college.
The final awardee was Debbie Walsh, who has done extensive research on women’s political lives. She has developed the Teach A Girl to Lead initiative, which is helping to create more female engagement in the political sphere and educate on the importance of civic participation.
Sofia Cintron, a freshman child advocacy and policy major, volunteered at the event.
“It’s a huge honor to be working at an event like this,” Cintron said. “There is so much work and effort that goes into something like this.”
Sofia Bari, a freshman dual enrollment student, said she came to this event for Clinton and enjoyed the event.
“I enjoyed it,” Bari said. “I didn’t go in with that many expectations as is, but I think it exceeded it.”
Cintron explained why she wanted to volunteer and attend.
“It’s important to highlight women, women’s history and important women across the state. I just love that [Menendez] is having an event like this,” Cintron said. “I really liked how [Clinton] brought it back to reproductive rights, especially right now, in the political landscape across the country women’s rights are being taken away, or severely limited. I think it’s important that we have prominent people in office, like Senator Menendez, like former Secretary of State Clinton, that we have people like them, who are pushing for women’s rights and for reproductive freedom.”