Over 100 years ago, Congress passed the 19th Amendment giving women with the right to vote. Since 1971, August 26 marks Women’s Equality Day, which commemorates over a century of women breaking boundaries.
NIFA is proud to highlight Dr. Suzanne Stluka, deputy director food safety and nutrition, as a trailblazing individual to help celebrate Women’s Equality Day. Get to know Dr. Stluka and her path to NIFA.
Where did you spend your formative years, and what were your interests?
I was born and raised in Lake Andes, South Dakota, where my parents still live today. It is a rural, tribal community on the Ihanktowan (Yankton Sioux) nation. Living in a small town, and having a parent who was an educator meant that I was involved in everything – 4-H, FCCLA, National Honor Society, cheerleading, Sunday school teacher, selling concessions, All State Choir, etc. Our town has an annual event called Fish Days, and one of the traditions is a queen contest, so I was a Fish Days Queen. I was also a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA), cook, and dietary aide throughout high school and college at the local nursing home.
How did your roots help shape you into the person you are today?
Growing up in a rural community showed me how important it was to volunteer and give back. My grandmother had only an eighth-grade education and was a single mom. She took me along with her on the weekends to her cleaning jobs at the local clinic and community center and showed me that planting flowers at the city park helped to brighten up the community. My dad was a volunteer EMT and firefighter, so I always remember the beeper going off in the middle of the night to help a community member. For 14 years my parents operated a local ice cream and hamburger business where you could find us all behind the scenes cooking, waiting tables, taking orders, etc. It taught me the value of customer service and how much it means to a small community to have a place to go out to eat. You can still find my mom today directing the city library, managing the community garden, running the farmer’s market – I love to go home because I know there is something for me to get involved with.
Were there any boundaries/barriers you have faced as you moved toward your goals over the years?
There were perceptions of my hometown and school growing up that produced barriers, so it was always special when we were able to break through those. I was proud to be elected as the first South Dakota FCCLA state president from my school. Going off to college was difficult, and it brought to light the discrepancies our rural school systems face in preparing students for this next level. Working in academia for many years without having the Ph.D. credential behind my name for many of those years made it difficult to get invited to some tables, caused me to be overlooked for some opportunities, and often meant I had to work harder to prove my value. Like many women, I have faced barriers because of my gender.
What advice would you give young women as they are striving to achieve their goals?
I have been blessed with female role models and mentors, so don’t be afraid to ask for that help, or to be that role model for other women. Uplift, support, and empower other women. Create room at the table for other women.
What are your professional goals for the future for yourself?
I have been given a brand-new opportunity as an SES within NIFA, and so I am looking forward to spending the next phase in my career learning and growing into this position. I do believe that someday I may return to Cooperative Extension Service to serve as a dean and/or director if given the chance.
To watch the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Women's Equality Day celebration, visit here.