Programs for Girls Boost Confidence, Encourage Dreams
BY MARY LEE HARVEY DIRCKS
Are leaders made, or born? Many experts in the field of leadership believe young people can learn to be leaders. Omaha is fortunate to boast several quality programs that bolster self-esteem and confidence — the building blocks of leadership — and give girls opportunities to lead their peers. Programs vary by topic or focus but share a common theme to encourage participants in recognizing their individual strengths and asserting themselves to follow their dreams.
Omaha Girls Rock
Many girls dream of being a rock star. Omaha Girls Rock (OGR) makes that dream come true — even if only for a week. Girls ages 8 to 18, with no previous musical experience required, learn to play a rock instrument of their choosing, create a band, write an original song and perform it all during a one-week summer camp. Sounds impossible, but it’s not. “On the surface it seems to be all about the music,” says Valerie Nelson, OGR fundraising and community outreach coordinator, “but the music is really the guiding or motivational tool to show a young girl that she can do something big that she maybe didn’t think she could do. And that’s really powerful at the end of the day.”
A typical day at camp includes two hours of instrument instruction, two one-hour workshops on topics ranging from writing lyrics to diversity, two hours of band rehearsal, and group assemblies with guest musician performances. In-kind donations, volunteer staff and community contributions allow OGR to keep costs down while providing scholarships to campers who come from homes with limited income. Every instructor, band coach and workshop leader is a woman, Nelson says. “To have all female instructors during camp is just another mirror to them that they can do it.” Nelson marvels that original lyrics created entirely by the girls all echo the message that they are great just the way they are and that they can do anything. “It’s incredible.”
Aim for the Stars
Statistics show that girls are less likely to pursue higher education in the areas of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). UNO hosts two summer programs that are pressing to change that norm—Aim for the Stars and the Eureka STEM Program.
In 2008, UNO’s Aim for the Stars added girl-specific programming to its series of nine one-week summer sessions that focus attention in STEM-related areas. More than 1,770 young people ages 7 to 16 engage in hands-on activities that bring math and science to life in entertaining and inspiring ways. The number of girls who attend engineering camps rocketed from six to more than 24 after adding the girls-only sessions, says Connie O’Brien, Aim for the Stars director. “We are adding Engineering II next summer,” she says, “because the girls asked me to.”
O’Brien also plans to add an astronomy camp to the list of girls-only options, which already includes forensic science, electricity, chemistry, environmental studies and engineering. “These girl-specific programs are bringing them in and removing the discomfort,” O’Brien says. “It’s just not a choice anymore. The girls have got to step up for the U.S. to continue to be competitive internationally.”
O’Brien passionately encourages girls to push past social barriers to explore STEM-related disciplines that interest them. “There are plenty of opportunities and there is nothing to be afraid of,” she says. Girls leave camp with a sense of empowerment. “They’ve proven to themselves that they can do it. And they’ve learned the programming jargon that will stay with them throughout.” O’Brien notices that more girls are joining LEGO™ leagues and robotics engineering competitions as well. “We are fostering the idea of collaboration,” O’Brien says about men and women working together in STEM-related fields. “We are teaching young people to build with each other’s strengths and talents.”
Eureka STEM Program
UNO also partners with Girls Inc. of Omaha to provide an all-girls program that entices middle school girls into pursuing interests in STEM-related fields and empowers them to go on to higher education. The Eureka STEM Program spans over five years, starting the summer before eighth grade and continuing through high school graduation. Each group stays together throughout, building supportive bonds with one another and creating an automatic network of peers, says Katie Kelley, Eureka coordinator for Girls Inc. of Omaha. “The excitement is in the air at Girls Inc.,” Kelley says. “The younger girls in fourth and fifth grades are already excited to come into Eureka.”
They hear the older girls talk about how awesome it is and witness the empowerment after four weeks of hands-on experience with robotics, rockets, scientific interactions and personal growth, she says. “Most of these girls are first-generation family members to (hopefully) go to college,” she says. “Just being on the college campus and knowing where to go, they feel the empowerment of being a college student.” She was particularly amazed by the confidence and newfound commitment the second-year group demonstrated after this year’s summer camp. They know that year three involves an internship and are already stopping in to ask if she has their assignment yet for next summer.
The first two years involve intensive four-week day camps on the UNO campus that focus half of the time in STEM experiences and devote the other half to personal development and adventures in sports and physical achievement. One Girls Inc. national requirement for Eureka is that every girl learns to swim. “This is a life skill they will have forever,” Kelley says. “A lot of these girls have never been exposed to the water, and to watch them go off the board into the deep end after four weeks of instruction and see the smiles on their faces is amazing!” Additionally, Kelley organizes activities throughout the school year that build on camp experiences.
The third summer encompasses placement in a four-week paid internship for each girl in the career area that interests her. The last two years, Eureka participants are also coached through the college search process. Girls Inc. staff members and volunteers help with college visits, filling out FAFSA forms and exploring job and scholarship opportunities. The main point of the program is to catch them when the interest sparks and give them the resources and exposure to continue into college, Kelley says. Eureka is still new to Omaha, just beginning its third year, but has been active for many years in other states. “California is starting its 22nd year,” Kelley beams, “and 100 percent of the girls who complete the program go on to college!” She is anxious to see that statistic unfold here in Omaha over the next several years.
Latina Summer Academy
College of Saint Mary also provides girls that on-campus experience by offering the Latina Summer Academy for ninth and tenth grade Latinas with an interest in STEM-related fields. It’s a one-week overnight camp where the girls stay in dorms and follow a multifaceted curriculum that empowers them to excel academically; experiment and increase confidence in math, science and technology; and promote their own sense of worth and self-esteem as young Latina women. “We want these girls to experience that they can do it in those fields,” says Maria Luisa Gaston, director for the Latina Summer Academy at College of Saint Mary, “and if that’s a stumbling block for them to finish high school, then this camp helps them to say, ‘Oh yes I can do it.’”
The academy’s holistic approach incorporates academic, social, cultural, health and spiritual components in conjunction with a uniting theme. This year’s theme connected science and technology to artistic elements. Field trips, guest speakers and hands-on activities brought this connection to life. “Every year I invite Latina professionals from all different fields to share a meal with us,” Gaston says. “To see the number of Latina women in so many different professions gives the girls a sense of pride in being Latina themselves.” That sense of self is what the program aims to create in each camper, as well as encouraging them to finish high school and go on to college.
Girl Scouts Spirit of Nebraska
No discussion about leadership opportunities would be complete without mentioning Girl Scouts Spirit of Nebraska — an organization that has empowerment of girls down to a science. “Our mission is building girls of courage, confidence and character to make the world a better place,” says Lisa Hiatt, statewide program and outreach director.
The Girl Scout formula for leadership begins with three key points: discover, connect and take action. “Girls discover what’s important to them, connect to it and then take action to improve upon it, which is the community service portion,” Hiatt explains. Girls of all ages choose pathways to follow in whatever areas interest them. “The troop pathway works best for girls in kindergarten through fourth grade,” Hiatt says. Other pathways that keep older girls active include camps, series, events and travel. Achievement awards offer girls additional opportunities to be leaders and impact the community and themselves. Hiatt compares the Girl Scout Gold Award to the Boy Scout Eagle Merit Badge, saying it carries the same weight for scholarship and employment possibilities.
Membership of middle and high school girls has increased in the last two years, according to Hiatt. “I would attribute that increase to the addition of high-quality programming.” She is most proud of the Young Women Executive (YWE) Camp, which pairs high-level professional women with high school girls to participate in a four-day camp experience. They do all of the traditional camp activities, such as horseback riding, canoeing, archery and challenge courses, but also have a formal dinner night where they get all dressed up. “Every night around the camp fire the women do what we call a ‘Dreaming your Future Session,’” Hiatt says. They share their stories with an emphasis on what they wish they’d known when they were 17. “One of the things I think happens for a lot of girls, especially those with hardship, is that they see these successful women and think, oh they’ve had a cake walk of a life. I could never do that,” Hiatt says. “But every woman has some sort of story: ‘I was fired from a job, I dropped out of college, I failed at this but it opened a door for something else.’” Hearing these stories first-hand and making those connections closes that gap for these girls, she says.
The surprise benefit has been the impact this program has on the women who attend, Hiatt says, recalling an email sent by one of the mentors. “She wrote, ‘I feel guilty because there is no way I could have given my girl as much as she gave me.’”
Mentors are recruited through the companies they work for. Employers are asked to sponsor the women and they, in turn, are asked to sponsor the girl they are paired with. Girls attend free after an application and selection process. “It’s really powerful, and I think it will continue to grow,” Hiatt says. “Every woman from last year who volunteered came back.” This past summer marked the camp’s second year.
What girls need in terms of leadership development has changed, Hiatt says, and Girl Scouts Spirit of Nebraska continues to adjust accordingly. “Girl Scouts is not just about uniforms, cookies and crafts,” she says.