When a friend first invited her to join the Women's Giving Circle, Maura Dunnigan hesitated.
A Howard County teacher on maternity leave at the time, she just didn't picture herself when she heard the term "philanthropist."
"I thought, 'I'm not a philanthropist – that's for Melinda Gates,'" Dunnigan said.
But on Thursday, Sept. 12, the WGC honored Dunnigan for embodying the role she had earlier had such a hard time imagining.
At a private reception at the Mall in Columbia, the WGC, a community philanthropic organization devoted to addressing the needs of women and girls in Howard County, recognized Dunnigan and Helen Buss Mitchell, director of women's studies at Howard County Community College, for their achievements.
The event was attended by some of Howard County's most successful women. Jaki Ulman, a WGC supporter and wife of County Executive Ken Ulman, MC'ed the program, and politicians such as District 1 County Council member Courtney Watson and District 12 state Del. Liz Bobo turned out for the awards ceremony.
Dunnigan, who teaches a seminar on leadership and civic service and engagement for the Rouse Scholars program at HCC, received the WGC's leadership award.
She said that just as she couldn't initially picture herself as a philanthropist, she also had a hard time embracing the term "leader."
"I threw it back to my students and asked what leadership meant to them," she said.
For her, the qualities of a leader are best explained in a quote by sixth president John Quincy Adams: "If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more or become more, you are a leader."
Dunnigan is now coordinator of the SoleMates program for Girls on the Run, a curriculum for girls in third through eighth grades that emphasizes running as a form of empowerment. Girls work as a team with coaches and run a 5K at the end of the program. "SoleMates" raise money to fund scholarships for Girls on the Run participants.
Dunnigan emphasized the importance of collaboration. "I'm led to dream by my family, I'm led to learn by my colleagues at the HCC and by my students, who innovate, inspire, listen and share," she said.
Buss Mitchell, who received WGC's leadership award for her work as a teacher and director of the women's studies program at HCC for nearly 40 years, said she too was inspired to lead by her students.
"My favorite part really is the openness and eagerness of my students," she said. They're hungry for the things that I'm teaching."
Buss Mitchell said she was inspired to focus on women's studies because she wanted to fill what she saw as a gap in the college's curriculum.
"At a certain point I became aware of what had been left out of the historical record," she said. "It was really a turning point for me, I think, to say this just isn't right; we ought to find a way to bring it back. Because it's our heritage."
Buss Mitchell is also the author of a world philosophy book, "Roots of Wisdom," which will soon be in its 7th edition.
She's encouraged by the growth of feminism since she started at HCC. "For a while, nobody wanted to say 'I'm a feminist,'" she said. "And now people are embracing it. I always have."