Many Countries, One Destination

Students from all points of the globe find knowledge and confidence at Mills to improve communities near and far.

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By Linda Schmidt

From its very inception, Mills College has been a small school with an international reach. Founders Cyrus and Susan Mills had served as missionaries and educators in Ceylon and the Sandwich Islands—known to us today as Sri Lanka and Hawaii—and their overseas ties brought students from abroad to study at the new seminary alongside the daughters of local miners, farmers, and merchants. 

Today, Mills continues to attract women from all over the world who seek exceptional opportunities for classroom learning and personal expression. On these pages, you’ll meet three extraordinary alumnae whose differing paths have led them all to the idyllic Oakland campus redolent of eucalyptus. Their pursuits are as diverse as their nationalities but, as they move through the world, their stories all show how each individual can make a significant difference in communities near and far. 

Johanna Paillet-Growl ’07, originally from France, earned her degree in anthropology- sociology and has been an aid worker in Africa and South America. “I enjoy doing direct service and interacting with people,” she says. “Going into the field and doing humanitarian work allows me to apply the theoretical understanding I acquired at Mills and become a vehicle for tangible change.” 

Martha Rodriguez-Salazar, MA ’00, didn’t realize her true role until she saw the interplay of cultures between her native Mexico and her new home in the Bay Area. “If I had stayed in Mexico, I’m sure I would be doing great things, but not at all what I’m doing now. I love my cultural and musical roots and want to be able to transmit that love to others,” she says. “Coming here really helped me discover my calling in life.” 

“Mills offers a high-caliber education that allows students to develop and bloom,” says Inge Hendromartono ’81, who found that options for higher education were limited in her home country of Indonesia. “There are so many students who can truly benefit from studying in the US. Mills can offer the world a great place for education for women.” 

American students also benefit from the presence of students from overseas, who bring their unique perspectives to discussion in and out of the classroom. 

“To be leaders in the world, all students need exposure to the global community— through study abroad, international internships, and a diverse student body,” says Vice President of Student Life Eloise Stiglitz. “International students are an important part of the richness of the campus community and help create a truly multi-cultural environment. Everyone learns when multiple perspectives are a part of our daily dialog and we see how values and history shape our knowledge. That awareness can be eye opening.” 

Follow Your Heart: Inge Hendromartono ’81

As a young girl of eight, living in a small town on the north coast of central Java, Inge Hendromartono knew that she wanted to see the world. “One of my uncles, a sea captain, came back from his travels and gave me a book showing children of the world, with their costumes and customs,” she says. “‘Whoa! There’s a whole world out there with all these people who are different than myself,’ I thought. How fascinating, how I wished to get to know them.” 

Her parents were well-known batik artists who encouraged her to study hard and learn English. Inge did well in school, but was crushed when, as a woman of Chinese descent, she was denied entrance to a high school study abroad program and again when quotas kept her from attending the national university. “The culture was very divided; discrimination was much stronger then than it is now,” she says. 

One of the foreign visitors who frequently came to their house to buy fabrics, a man from San Jose, California, suggested the possibility of study in the US. He helped Inge apply and gain admittance to UC Davis, UC Berkeley, and Mills. “Mills gave me nearly a full scholarship,” she says—an offer that made her continuing education possible. 

“I was so excited. I had always heard that the US was the melting pot, and it was. I met students from so many countries—to me it was just heaven!” Hendromartono says. “I thought my English was good enough, but it was a struggle to understand lectures and do all the reading. I had to use my dictionary, but I managed.” 

Mills offered a wide-ranging academic and social education and its supportive environment increased her confidence and independence. “I loved the small classes and the way the liberal arts curriculum enables you to explore various subjects and broaden your mind,” she says. “I was so busy adapting and learning. My mom had said as you travel abroad, you will be exposed to many different things; be open to all of it.” 

After beginning as an art major, she spent a semester abroad at the Sorbonne in Paris and completed her degree in economics, went on to earn an MBA from UCLA, and soon found herself moving to Switzerland to join the international marketing division of Procter and Gamble. “I met people there from literally all over the world,” she says. “It was an amazing, wonderful time—a dream come true.” 

This was not the end to her travels, however. Three years later, by chance, she met up in New York with Christopher Senn, a half-Swiss, half-British former colleague from Geneva. They had remained in touch and “it was just the right time when we met again,” Hendromartono says. A whirlwind romance followed and, spurred by a shared entrepreneurial spirit, they decided to get married, ditch their corporate jobs, move back to the Bay Area, and start a business. 

“I had felt my artistic side was suppressed,” she explains. “For me, our business had to be something creative in order to give me happiness. For him, any industry was OK as long as it was his own. Naturally, I decided on fashion accessories because I didn’t want to deal with sizing!” Their new venture, IngeChristopher, reflected the couple’s international experience. They began by designing and producing sterling silver jewelry from Bali, beaded handbags from China, and antique rattan handbags from Indonesia. After specializing in handbags that incorporate beading, silk, leather, Swarovski crystals, and other materials, in 1999 they acquired Whiting and Davis, a metal mesh handbag company that had been in existence for over a century, and set to reinvigorating the brand with new colors and designs. 

“Having the chance to cultivate international friends provides an invaluable lesson that you just cannot possibly learn in a classroom,” Hendromartono says. “We’re all connected; the world is getting smaller and smaller. When you get to know or live in another country, it makes the world come alive.” 

Bridging Cultures, Creating Communities: Martha Rodriguez-Salazar, MA ’00

Martha Rodriguez-Salazar is the daughter of a prominent engineer and professor in Mexico City. But she came to love opera through the influence of her mother and a singer with whom she took voice lessons; she also became an accomplished flutist. “Music turned out to be my passion,” she says. “My father, he makes bridges structurally, but I create them in a different way. I create them artistically.” 

Her musical career began with a stint in the Mexican navy, which offered the chance to work in choirs and an orchestra, and then 10 years touring Mexico as part of a flute and guitar duo. But, she says, “I came to a point in my life when I felt it was the moment to leave and go pursue a dream.” She applied to Mills in order to study with Angela Koregelos, a flute player who teaches at Mills. 

“Coming to Mills changed my life,” Rodriguez-Salazar says. Her transformation was not just artistic. After the hectic bustle of Mexico City, the Mills campus seemed peaceful and beautiful. The Bay Area’s multicultural environment helped her gain a new appreciation for her Latina heritage. And the vibrancy of the gay community gave her a deep sense of strength. “It was very inclusive,” she says. “I lived with a lot of social pressure in Mexico, where it was not at all easy to be myself as an artist and as an ‘out’ person. Mills gave me the freedom to just feel at ease.” (She married her partner in music and in life at the Mills Chapel in 2009.) 

Rodriguez-Salazar found that the academic support at Mills equalled the social support. “It was not the stressful, competitive atmosphere that you would find at a conservatory,” she says. “It was amazing to have my peers composing for me and wanting to collaborate.” These teachers and peers connected her to a wider community of artists, including Priscilla Call, who introduced her to the Community Music Center in San Francisco’s Mission District, where Rodriguez-Salazar now teaches flute, voice, and piano and a scholarship Latin music program for local teenagers. Many of her pupils are second-generation Latino students. “When they learn to play Latin music they begin to identify with their roots and understand where their parents come from,” she says. 

Her work spans generations: She is also directing four groups that are participating in a five-year study by UCSF to evaluate the cognitive and physical effects that singing in a choir has for adults over 60. “Working with older adults has been one of the best gigs,” she says warmly. “I love the stories of older people, I love the effect that music gives them instantly.” 

Her function as a “bridge” may be most apparent in two other efforts: With her chamber group, the Bernal Hill Players, she has initiated a project to commission pieces by San Francisco composers inspired by neighborhoods in the city. The next stage of the project will bring in composers from Mexico City, with an ultimate goal of sponsoring a musical exchange program. 

And her work curating the San Francisco Symphony’s Day of the Dead festival, which combines classical and traditional works from both Latin American and other composers, brings the Latino community to a type of performance that can be seen as intimidating or inaccessible. It also offers the opportunity to mediate between differing standards and expectations. 

“Some of our Mexican cultural traditions surrounding death are at odds with North American approaches to the subject, such as when I proposed creating an altar honoring deceased San Francisco Symphony musicians,” Rodriguez-Salazar smiles. “But it’s my seventh year there now, and they’re starting to understand what the culture is about. And I’m understanding them as well. 

“I get such energy from doing what I like in life and the amazing possibilities here,” she says. “Working with the community and seeing the joy that music produces in people really feeds me. I see that I’m planting seeds that are growing into beautiful flowers.” 

Recognizing Human Dignity: Johanna Paillet-Growl ’07

Having lived and worked on four continents (so far) and being fluent in three languages, Johanna Paillet-Growl is a bona fide citizen of the world. 

A native of Montpelier, France, Johanna grew up hearing stories of colonial influence in Africa and of independent Senegal from her mother, who had been born and raised in Senegal. Her family frequently discussed world events and they were able to visit many different countries throughout her childhood. “That definitely opened up my mind,” she says. “I had a lot of interest in Africa and other countries and wanted to go abroad.” 

Two years after graduating from Mills, she received a fellowship from the Washington DC–based Advocacy Project and her ability to speak French virtually guaranteed a placement in Africa. She traveled to Cameroon, where she evaluated an HIV/AIDS awareness campaign, produced a bilingual documentary about women market traders, and provided those women with training in communications and fundraising. 

“My time in Africa was definitely life changing,” she says. “I so admire the courage and humility of the women market traders. Despite challenges of literacy or age or children to support, their desire to learn and power to move forward was incredible.” Paillet-Growl’s sojourn in Cameroon also brought her first-hand experience of the legacy of colonialism. “There is still a lot of negative French influence in the country; people were very guarded at first, and it took a while to gain their trust,” she says. But by the time she left Cameroon, the women had warmed to her, learned grant writing, and are continuing to grow their businesses. 

The following year, she traveled to Colombia to evaluate the effectiveness of an income-generation program in a region of chronic conflict. She also earned a master’s degree from the Monterey Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California. 

Underlying all these activities is a dedication to human rights that was honed at Mills. “The guiding thread is recognizing human dignity and enabling people to change their situation,” she says. “Change is slow,” she adds thoughtfully. “In any of the work I do, I always ask—is it really making an impact? Is it really sustainable?” 

Paillet-Growl moved to California with her family in 1996 and earned a degree in documentary photography from the Academy of Art, but her desire for a more intellectually substantial education led her to Mills. Small classes and outstanding professors—she cites Fred Lawson, among others—provided her with a solid footing. 

“Mills was critical in terms of my coming of age as a person,” she says. “It was the foundation for me to pursue the work that I’ve done, and it really developed my desire to focus on women’s rights and women’s empowerment. Other experiences have continued to layer over that—and hopefully will continue to do so.” 

She currently lives in Alameda and works with the Seneca Center, helping to connect children living in out-of-home care, such as those in the foster system, with relatives who can provide a sense of meaningful family connection and belonging. Many of her clients are monolingual immigrants, so the job allows her to use her Spanish skills to help youth in a meaningful way. 

She and her husband are now busy raising two young children of their own, but she already foresees a return to work in the international arena. “Living abroad is a gift you can give to your children. It expands your mind and it makes you question who you are,” she says. “There’s a lot of beauty in incorporating different cultures and influences—you try to take the best out of all of them.”