Katie Dalton looks instantly familiar. At 5-foot-3, her milk chocolate eyes are about level with mine, wide and inviting. The grey cardigan and chunky teal statement necklace are things that I have in my closet. Even her name, Katie, sounds like someone my age, not the director of a major department at Boston College.
Dalton, director of the Women’s Center (WC), should be moving at about twice the pace of the average person. Her work means she spends every day confronting major national issues such as gender equality, female empowerment, and sexual assault, and how they intersect with the lives of BC students. You would never know by watching her in a conversation.
Dalton listens, really listens, so that she can hear you. She moves forward in her chair, tipping her chin, almost extending her body so she can meet you in the middle. If someone were to walk by quickly, her expression could almost be confused for surprise—her eyebrows lift, her eyes stretch. It’s like she is trying to maximize every bit of her face to take in what you’re saying.
But the way she answers is almost equally impressive. She sits up straight and maps out her answer with her hands, softly, but deeply composed. And then, she does what so many of us fail to do—she sits back to hear the response.
Dalton graduated from BC in 2003, but her presence extends far beyond her four years in both directions. Her parents went to BC, and so did both of her sisters, and her husband is also a BC alum, whom she met when they were adult leaders on Kairos. They were married five years later in St. Ignatius, checking off another box on the list of possible BC fantasies that students have.
After a brief stint working in advertising after college, Dalton decided to pack her bags and get her master’s degree in higher education at Northwestern. She stayed for three days before feeling homesick for Chestnut Hill, Mass. She drove directly from Chicago to BC and started classes that evening, returning to a place that felt like home. Dalton applied for the director of the Women’s Center in 2010 and has kept moving ever since.
College can be a scary place for almost anyone. In a span of three months, 34 percent of students will feel depressed, according to the Associated Press. The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reports that 1,825 college students between the ages of 18 to 24 die each year from alcohol-related unintentional injuries.
For women, the worries are even greater. The National Institute of Justice estimates that for every 1,000 women attending a college or university, there are 35 incidents of rape each academic year. A 2012 report found that female students at BC are leaving with lower self-confidence than they came in with, while men’s self-confidence rises. And standing in the way of all this is Dalton, one very tiny woman in metallic Vans.
Barbara Jones, vice president for Student Affairs, recognized the issues Dalton was battling at BC. In 2013, with the blessing of the center, the WC was elevated to a stand-alone department. “I think what Barb recognized was there was a great opportunity to move away from kind of medicalizing women’s issues,” Dalton said. Prior to this year, the WC was under the Office of Health Promotion, and there was a common misconception on campus that the Center only dealt with information and resources regarding women’s health and the major campaign weeks, Love Your Body Week and C.A.R.E Week. The WC hired an assistant director, Rachel Dibella, who has taken over many of the responsibilities for programs focused on sexual assault. Now Dalton has the time and hands she needs to make the Center forward-thinking, rather than reactionary. The WC aims to empower women upfront, with a very determined Dalton leading the way.
During her first day on the job, Dalton sat Dibella down. She asked her three questions: Where do you want to be in 10 years? Where do you want to be in five years? And how can we help you get there?
“Her first question for me is, ‘How can I help you achieve your goals?’” Dibella said. “And that is such a different style of managing someone from, ‘Here’s what I need from you.”
Dalton is a mentor by nature. “I wouldn’t even be able to quantify how many students have considered Katie a mentor, but it’s hundreds. I really think it’s hundreds,” said Katie O’Dair, associate vice president for Student Affairs and Dalton’s long-time friend and colleague.
There’s a sign hanging directly across from the door to Dalton’s—no one belongs here more than you. It’s the perfect backdrop for Dalton. The sign validates anyone and everyone’s presence in Dalton’s midst. “She never assumes things about students, she never oversteps her boundaries and says, ‘Okay, you’re saying this, but it sounds to me like what you mean is this,’” said Paige Marino, a WC staffer and A&S ’15.
She has a few other signs, too. One that reads, Making little “pew pew” noises instantly makes you a superhero hangs closer to the window. Even with her quirks, Dalton knows she can be a force of change—if she believes in something, normally it happens. She affects almost all BC students’ lives, even if they don’t realize it. Bystander Training has seen huge growth under the supervision of Dalton. Bystander, a student-led program that addresses the multiple aspects of sexual violence, encourages students to develop effective ways to handle situations that could lead to sexual violence.
“Many people didn’t know what Bystander was,” O’Dair said. “Katie worked with a team from UNH, not only to bring it to BC, but to adapt it to the Boston College culture.” What started as maybe 600 or 800 students going through the training is now 3,000. An impressive 99 percent of the class of 2018 has gone through Bystander training. The statistics are impressive, but consider it in the context of a Mod party: in four years, everyone at that party will have been taught how to recognize warning signs, and where to draw the line.
What translates to determination in her work is just sheer competitiveness in other parts of Dalton’s life.
She played basketball at an Australian university while studying abroad in college and runs the steps of Harvard Stadium at 6:30 every the morning. “She makes Secret Santa competitive, somehow,” Dibella said. “It’s become increasingly more competitive every year because only Katie can make Secret Santa competitive.”
This fall, Dalton and her team went to Sky Zone, an indoor trampoline park, for a staff retreat. They wound up on the burnt orange and deep blue trampoline dodgeball court—a ridiculous activity any way you slice it. But Dalton’s competitive nature started to flow. She and the staff challenged some adult couples and middle school boys. Dalton didn’t let them off easy, whipping the red dodgeballs at the strangers—even the boys. “When you see her in action, she is in action,” Marino said.
Very few things in Dalton’s life are as routine as her workouts. Really, the only constants in Dalton’s schedule are meetings—a very loose cord to tie around a day when the content varies so much. The WC programs alone are a huge undertaking. In addition to Bystander training, the center runs the Sexual Assault Network (SANet), Advance (a forum for the various gender-focused groups on campus), Concerned About Rape Education (C.A.R.E.) week, Love Your Body Week, and Duo (a peer mentoring program). Dalton also often acts as a bridge to counseling, a professor (she teaches a Cross Currents seminar, a one-credit class for students in courses that raise complex issues), and an advisor for programs like this year’s inaugural Own It Summit.
It’s a juggling act of complex issues, packed schedules, and a myriad of personalities all competing for her attention. And those are only the demands of her job.
Before the dodgeball game, Dalton invited her staff to her home for some food and a formal meeting. Her 2-year-old Liam is outgoing just like his mom, and he was very excited to show off all the toys to his guests. His little, red-haired head bobbed around the room as he shoved toy cars and blocks into the hands of his cooing new friends. Dalton would let this go on for a few minutes and then explain to Liam that mommy was at work right now, and the girls would play in a little bit.
Dalton gets visibly happy when asked to speak about her family—either her sons or the family she has built at BC. Work-life balance is something about which she worries, but until she stops finding as much joy at BC as at home, Dalton is sticking with her balancing act.
By 9 a.m. on Friday, Dalton had already finished her first meeting of the day. “This is like lunch time for me,” she said, laughing when she noticed the venti coffee I was holding.She and I were walking back in the cold, morning sunshine, and I was fumbling for conversation to fill the time from Fulton to Stokes.
She asked me about my week and I let out an audible sigh. I found my stress about my portfolios and finals tumbling out of my mouth, giving her too many details for someone who had only known her for a week. She turned toward me, coming a bit closer. Out of my peripheral vision I could see her eyes getting bigger, her hands poised to help me lay out a plan.
Correction May 4, 2015:
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Dalton began her role in the Women’s Center in 2008 rather than 2010. It also stated that Dalton brought Bystander Education to BC. The program was started by her predecessor, Sheila McMahon. The article has been updated to reflect these changes.
Featured Image by Drew Hoo / Heights Editor