SWEA International was in New York last week for its annual meeting. Nordstjernan sat down with the new chairwoman to discuss the importance of SWEA, what she wants to accomplish and what she looks forward to.
Meet Margaret Sikkens Ahlquist, the newly elected chairwoman of SWEA International. SWEA stands for Swedish Women’s Educational Association Inc., the global non-profit organization for Swedish speaking women who live or have lived abroad. General info on the organization: SWEA 30 years!
Sikkens Ahlquist describes herself as a typical “föreningsmänniska,” a person quick to join organizations. She was drawn to SWEA as a young mother who’d moved to Holland in the early 1990s.
“I joined a number of Swedish organizations in Holland,” she explains. “But SWEA was the one that suited me the best. I particularly liked the international aspect and that I met so many genuinely nice women there.”
At first Sikkens Ahlquist was busy with two young children, but as they grew and began school, she became a more active member.
“In 2006, I was asked to join SWEA Holland and a year later I was elected their chairwoman. I helped organize SWEA’s world meeting in Washington in 2009, and that really whet my appetite.”
Meanwhile, she had gained experience as president of the International Gymnastics Federation and was familiar with board meetings. In 2011, when it was time for Åsa Lena Lööf to step down as chairwoman for SWEA International, Sikkens Ahlquist decided to apply for the position—and was elected.
“What’s so great about SWEA is that you can sit as chairwoman for a maximum of two terms (four years), which means new blood has to be constantly brought in. But the departing chairwoman stays on as Past President for a year, as a back-up, which is enormously helpful.”
There are about 7,500 members in SWEA in 73 different chapters in 33 countries around the world. Sikkens Ahlquist’s goal is to use modern technology to bring them even closer together and make communication easier and speedier.
“I want SWEA International to be more visible, and of course we need more members. We have to spruce up or change our image in some areas, and we have to offer more attractive projects,” she says.
When a SWEA moves from one country to another, it’s important to keep her, Sikkens Ahlquist says, to make sure she engages in the SWEA organization in her new country or region.
So why join an organization like SWEA?
Do you want 8,000 new friends?
“I once saw a SWEA banner in Australia saying ‘Do you want 8,000 new friends?’ I thought that was so great. The friendship within SWEA is unique. I remember the world meeting in 2009 in Washington—you walk into a room full of women you’ve never seen before, but there’s an immediate rapport; it’s a very open, inviting atmosphere. A true global network that I wish more Swedish women would take part in.”
Sikkens Ahlquist is quick to dispel the myth that SWEA is some select group for rich women with nothing else to do with their time—everyone, she says, is invited. If you have small children, like Sikkens Ahlquist did when she first moved to Holland, you know you don’t have much time to engage in organizations, especially if you also work, but still SWEA can provide an oasis. When your children are older, you might enjoy even more of what the organization can offer.
“We have lots of older women who left Sweden a long time ago, who might be widowed or feel lonely. For them SWEA is ideal,” says Sikkens Ahlquist.
But it’s the younger women the new chairwoman wants to entice. As Swedish businesses expand in Asia, she sees that continent as an important area to focus on.
“Swedish women in Asia cluster in certain areas and already have a natural network,” Sikkens Ahlquist says. “We have to offer these women programs that suit them, such as programs scheduled for the evenings when they are more readily available.”
One program that will probably attract many SWEA members with young children, is a project about the importance of bilingualism, on which much research has been done in Sweden. Sikkens Ahlquist says that a SWEA in Vancouver, Canada, is doing research on that topic.
“I have always only spoken Swedish with my two children, though of course they’ve been going to Dutch schools," she says. "To me it was important they speak and read Swedish fluently, so they’d be able to communicate with our family in Sweden. And of course, living in Holland means we go to Sweden fairly often, as we also have a summer house there.”
What does the newly elected chairwoman of SWEA International look forward to?
“I look forward to meeting all these women! I think it’s so much fun to do these things. Most Swedes living abroad can probably relate to my own experience, which is that once you move abroad you become more Swedish than ever. It’s important that we carry on not only our language and our history, but traditions such as Christmas and Midsummers as well.”
By Eva Stenskär
Photography: Hanna Aqvilin
Last year's International meeting SWEAs Världsmöte i Kuala Lumpur 2011
For more information: www.swea.org