A Whole New Light

Kurt Voss and Karlyn Crowley inside the new Cassandra Voss Center. Voss holds a photograph of his daughter, whose passion for women’s and gender studies the center celebrates.
Kurt Voss and Karlyn Crowley inside the new Cassandra Voss Center. Voss holds a photograph of his daughter, whose passion for women’s and gender studies the center celebrates.

Cassandra Voss ’08 added a personal touch to her profile page when she served at the Joan P. Schaupp Women’s Center on the St. Norbert College campus. Instead of “likes” and “dislikes,” Cassandra listed several “passions” and a few items classified as “not interested in.”

“She didn’t simply like something,” explains her father, Kurt Voss. “If she had a positive feeling about something, she was passionate about it.”

Gender, relationships, talking about feminism, art, being in love, dancing, yoga, movies that change your life and writing confessional poetry were among Cassandra’s passions.

“When you think about it, to wake up every morning and have 30-some things you are passionate about and five things you are not interested in is a pretty good outlook on life,” says Kurt. “Just think what people would accomplish if that’s the outlook they had. To know that is to know my daughter.”

Through Cassandra’s convictions she and her father – “just a conservative white guy” – continued to find common ground. Kurt says, “She became such a spokesperson that she could out-debate a pretty good debater – her father – and teach her father in such a way that her father could know and understand.”

In May 2007, Cassandra died in an automobile accident. Her spirit, legacy and many of her passions live on through the new Cassandra Voss Center, which opened this fall in the renovated St. John’s Hall building at 311 Grant Street.

“This isn’t supposed to be a monument,” says Kurt. “The center is supposed to be a facilitator of many neat things and fulfilling things for students, educators and the community.” 

Cassandra was the first St. Norbert College student to major in women’s and gender studies. Outside the classroom, she served as student director at the women’s center, researched gender issues and facilitated programs. Cassandra also presented academic work at different venues, including the National Women’s Studies Association Conference.

The Cassandra Voss Center, steward of the largest gift total ever dedicated to gender programming on a college campus, now houses the Joan P. Schaupp Women’s Center, the Men’s Initiative and the women’s and gender studies discipline. 

What separates the building from similar centers on other campuses is the integration of co-curricular women’s and men’s programming. How gender intersects with social justice, relationships and communities will be among the focus areas, says Anna Czarnik-Neimeyer ’11, assistant director of the center. “Multiple levels of identity cross over with gender, not just women’s or men’s,” she says. “How does gender combine with race and class? We know that those all play into identity and how issues are played out.”

“Programming at the center will be education-driven, but it can also be fun,” says Karlyn Crowley (English, Women’s & Gender Studies), center director for its inaugural two years. “We make gender fun because it is fun,” she says. “I think there will be a playfulness, a sense of irony. We will deal with heavy subjects like sexuality and violence prevention – which are not always easy on a Catholic campus, but our students need it. We need to have frank discussions.”

Kurt has fond memories of gender-related conversations with his daughter.

“We would meet for breakfast and I would ask, ‘What did you learn in class?’ We spent a lot of time discussing feminism, the definition,” he explains. “My definition, previously to being exposed to her teaching, had negative connotations. We spent a lot of time around that, which was cool. She taught me so much.”

If the center serves as a place for “empowerment and transformation,” it will honor Cassandra’s passions, says Crowley. The design of the former St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church fits Cassandra’s sense of style,” she adds.

“The building mirrors Cassandra’s sensibility,” says Crowley. “She was artistic and had a beautiful eye. We used to joke about vintage clothing all the time. She was somebody who had a great aesthetic sense in her own dress and demeanor. She was very modern and retro simultaneously. She was very bold and a collaborator. Cassandra was an extraordinary person, innovative, joyous and hopeful.”

The former church bell tower is now the “Reflection Room for Hope.” The Rev. Jay Foster, O.Praem., ’84 (Mission & Student Affairs), designed the small space, which includes a statue of Martha and Mary, and two benches.

“As with all new buildings, we want to include a component of our religious identity and mission,” says Fostner. “Cassandra was a very positive person, full of life. Even through this tragedy of death, we reflect on the value of life.”

The room mirrors Cassandra, says Kurt. “In my view, faith is about hope. God has revealed that even more over the past six years to me … Cassandra had a lot of faith. She was figuring out the specifics and theology around that faith. She would want a room for people to have time to reflect and figure that out. She didn’t want to have a hollow faith; she wanted a deep-seated faith.”

Kurt led the $2.7 million funding effort for the project, which is among the largest-ever gift totals for a building focusing on gender at a college or university. A true “coalition of the willing,” the completion of the project brought both excitement and reflection, he says. “We started with a dilapidated 130-year-old building that was transformed inside. There is an academic part of it. There are classrooms, space for teachers, potential office space for visiting scholars. The non-academic space includes a super-cool lounge, a kitchen, televisions on all levels. Special films will be shown on the main level. It’s very collaborative in nature.”

Programming for the debut year of the Cassandra Voss Center is imagined as “the year of bell hooks.” A monthly program will honor the work of hooks, the author, feminist and social activist. Hooks, who has published more than 30 books and has done extensive research on gender, will visit St. Norbert in April. 

To support future programming and visiting scholars, the center will explore grants and naming opportunities, says Czarnik-Neimeyer. Billy Korinko ’09, consultant to the center and former director of the Men’s Initiative, adds: “I think St. Norbert will be a leader in the entire state and country with this sort of work.”

Kurt reflects often on what the center can accomplish, but his thoughts always return to his daughter.

“I think about my relationship with Cassie and the different things we debated and taught each other,” he says. “[The center] is in some ways a fulfillment of that. It’s a testimony to the college that they inspired a young woman to the point where she inspires her dad to make a difference.” 

Nov. 19, 2013