Indiana State University Newsroom

‘No one left behind’: Women of the World program creates opportunities for fun, exercise

November 25, 2015

The biggest dilemma Polina Kaniuka faces when getting ready to go to Indiana State University's Student Recreation Center is what shirt she should wear to work out.

But when a friend, who is a Muslim, pointed out that keeping cool at the gender neutral facility is more complicated for women whose religious beliefs require them to wear hijabs, it got Kaniuka's wheels turning about how to create a more hospitable exercise environment for all women on campus.

"I know how hot it gets working out without a hijab on, so I can only imagine how hot it is for women who have to wear them when working out at the rec center," said Kaniuka, a teaching English as a second language/language studies major from Ukraine and a graduate assistant at the Center for Global Engagement. "When my friend said she was embarrassed by how hot she would get and she didn't feel comfortable working out there, I thought maybe something could be done, especially since we have many Muslim women on campus."

The program is perfectly aligned with the center's mission to "be inclusive and sensitive to the cultural nuances of the student population it serves," said Zachariah Mathew, associate director of the center.

"(The Women of the World program) is in alignment with the Center for Global Engagement's mission, and it's Polina's passion that has led to the success of this program," he said.

The program includes a series of specialized activities for women. On top of the classes, Girls Night Out and an all-women's shopping trip aim to develop inclusive excellence and create a sense of belonging among international students and their families.

"It's about more than programming; it's our responsibility because we want all students who are seeking these types of opportunities to have them available," said Mathew, who credits Indiana State alumnae Amal Daqnah and Ahud Alfaleh from Saudi Arabia for building the foundation and initial expectations for WOW in 2013. "We need to support the special needs of our students, their spouses and children so that they feel connected to the university and the community."

The exercise classes kicked off in September with yoga every Tuesday at United Campus Ministries, led by Melissa Grinslade, a certified yoga instructor and staff counselor at Indiana State's Student Counseling Center.

Kaniuka also reached out to Kimberly Monte, Indiana State's associate director of fitness recreational sports, to see if the rec center could host Zumba and water courses.

In "great minds think alike" fashion, Monte and Chelsea Dolly, assistant director of aquatics recreational sports, were in the process of developing international programming on campus when Kaniuka approached them with her ideas.

"We've wanted to do some type of international programming," Monte said. "We went to a conference, where there was a workshop on programming for international students and a few ideas hit me, especially the water and group classes."

The first weekly, hour-long Zumba class was held Oct. 2 at the Rec Center with around 15 female participants and the first water class focused on providing skills to help women feel more comfortable in water was hosted on Oct. 9.

"I'm so excited about the swimming classes and I feel less pressure knowing that men aren't there," said Abar Alnajdi, an electronics and computer technology major from Saudi Arabia who will graduate with her master's degree in December. "The small groups are really nice and I've gotten to know some new people."

Open to all women on campus, the classes alternate weekly between Zumba classes at the Rec Center and the water class held at the pool in the Health and Human Services (Arena) Building.

While swimming isn't her forte, Tawana Chakanyuka has found the Zumba and yoga courses to be beneficial for her health as well as her global awareness.

"Like many other women, I don't feel as comfortable working out around men, so this a great opportunity for me to get in a great workout and meet new people," said Chakanyuka, a sophomore elementary education and French major who was born in Zimbabwe but moved to Fort Wayne with her family eight years ago. "In just the first few classes, I have made several friends with women from such diverse backgrounds so the experience has definitely benefited my learning, too."

The last class of the semester is scheduled for Dec. 4. If the programming is well received, Monte hopes to get the classes on the rec center's normal schedule.

Aside from finding times and locations to host the classes, Dolly and Monte secured female instructors and a lifeguard for the courses and made minor modifications to the class spaces.

"What's nice is that we have the Arena pool which is typically underutilized since the Rec Center was built, but for something like these classes it's great," Dolly said. "The first class was held in a room upstairs (in the Rec Center), which has windows. Because the women take their hijab off, we put the shades down and covered the windows in the doors with paper so no one could see in."

The water classes would be difficult to hold in the Rec Center because of all its windows, but that issue was solved by using the arena pool.

"We told the PE department what we were doing because they have male graduate assistants with offices by the pool areas. I told them I would come by before the classes and put paper up so the men couldn't see down to the pool area," Dolly said.

The yoga and swimming classes are a hit with Mashael Alshaer, a student from Saudi Arabia who is pursuing a PhD in special education. She's added the Zumba classes to her list of activities to participate in now that she has the opportunity to work out in comfort.

"In Saudi Arabia the workout facilities are separated by gender, so when I came to the United States six years ago I started looking for a place to exercise and get rid of stress, but the facilities are always gender mixed and I can't wear comfortable clothes," Alshaer said. "It feels a little more like home now that I have a place where I can work out without my scarf on. It shows that ISU doesn't want to leave any one behind."

Writer: Betsy Simon, media relations assistant director, Office of Communications and Marketing, Indiana State University, 812-237-7972 or

Photo: - Tawana Chakanyuka, left, a sophomore elementary education and French major who was born in Zimbabwe, and Mashael Alshaer, a student from Saudi Arabia who is pursuing a PhD in special education, are two participants in the Women of the World Program that was  started this fall at Indiana State University by the Center for Global Engagement, which aims to be inclusive and sensitive to the cultural nuances of the student population it serves.

Story Highlights

The specialized activities for women, which began this fall, are part of the Center for Global Engagement's mission to be inclusive and sensitive to the cultural nuances of the student population it serves.

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