Ten Marquette High seniors participated in the YWCA Metro St. Louis Young Women’s Leadership Academy this summer, despite the pandemic changing the in-person experience to a virtual one.
The Marquette students were joined by young women from each of the following schools: Ritenour, Lutheran North, McCluer and Incarnate Word. The event was held for two consecutive weeks, half of Marquette’s students participated in week one, with the remainder participating in week two.
This was an inaugural venture for the Rockwood School District, which encouraged individuals who met the GPA criteria to apply. The Academy was established in 2013 for middle and high school girls to “provide forums for young women to further develop their skills and competencies in the areas of leadership, communication, self-awareness and team building.”
According to the YWCA, the academy gives the girls the opportunity to discuss relevant topics and exchange ideas with other female leaders as well as their peers.
“The thing that really caught my eye was the empowerment part,” participant Tamima Hasan said. “Since the coronavirus and everything else that’s been going on in the community, I feel like it’s been a challenge to be involved. This program gave me a way to be involved in the community and see all the ways I can help out.”
Sarah Bergantz and Phoebe Calabrese said they were attracted to the program when their summer medical internships through Project Interface were canceled. Bergantz said she saw this as an opportunity to better herself and look to the future.
“I’m not shy but I don’t tend to expose every detail of myself. To be successful you need to discover the hidden side of yourself,” Bergantz said. “Discover (what’s) behind the façade, deep down, who you are. Bonding and connecting with others help you put down your walls and get to know one another.”
One way Bergantz said she achieved that was through the poems participants wrote about themselves and recited to the group.
“I play guitar so sometimes I write lyrics, but not to share with people,” Bergantz said, with a laugh. “I liked the poem a lot because it made me be vulnerable and made us all be OK with coming out to each other and showing our true selves. That was the most challenging thing for me to do.”
Each day involved a four-hour Zoom session in the morning with the whole group and guest speakers or individual work directed by an online leadership module; then, an afternoon social hour/check-in with the rest of the group.
The morning sessions also included wellness activities such as meditation and “let it go, let it flow,” in which the participants shared something they wanted to cut out of their lives and something they wanted to take on.
Each day centered on a focus area. Monday and Tuesday dealt with the participants identifying their sense of self and finding their strengths and weaknesses as leaders. Wednesday focused on networking, Thursday delved into weightier topics such as domestic abuse and racial justice, and Friday’s focus was college planning and financial aid.
“We talked a lot about collaboration, especially talking with a specific network of girls, learning how you can make those changes you have in your heart with the help of others,” participant Ivy Williams said. “It was very inspiring building the support system and the connection we have from being in the program.”
Calabrese said she especially enjoyed the networking day when participants had the opportunity to learn from female leaders such as Jami Dolby, development director at Maryville University.
“It is our responsibility as women to support one another professionally,” Calabrese said. “We’re all fighting the same battle, and not everyone’s path is going to look the same.
“You might be my competitor but you are not my competition. We need to be careful not to tear each other down. There are enough obstacles in our lives, so we don’t need to be obstacles for each other.”
The week concluded with a socially distanced ice cream meet up.
“This was a great experience. These are incredible girls and it was humble to hear what they’ve accomplished already and spoke up about racial injustice. They have fought hard to be where they are,” Calabrese said.
Bergantz said, “I thoroughly enjoyed getting to meet people who I might not get to be friends with through other paths and who have similar interests and values as me. I look forward to being able to meet up again in person.”
In addition to Bergantz, Calabrese, Hasan and Williams, Asia Dale, Zoe Malik, Vishwari Aleti, Rebekah Thompson, Kristen Holness and Damira Kulzhanbekova participated.