Alums, Faculty Collaborate on Teen Project

Posted: November 9, 2006

A collaboration among two Mount Holyoke alumnae and a faculty member aims to examine self-esteem issues among adolescent girls.

Seattle philanthropist Nancy S. Nordhoff '54, the founder of Hedgebrook, an organization that supports women's voices and encourages the writing of their stories, offered a challenge grant to ACT NOW! Inc., a nonprofit organization founded by Nancy Fletcher '68 in 2000 to build confidence and character in girls ages 11 to 14 through improvisational theatre and movie-making experiences.

Nordhoff offered the $5,000 challenge grant this summer to help fund a study of the effects of ACT NOW's work. Mount Holyoke associate professor of psychology and education Becky Wai-Ling Packard is matching the grant in-kind.

The research project will use a phenomenological case study method under the direction of visiting instructor in psychology and education Maureen Babineau, with the assistance of Packard and psychology students at the College.

Packard's research focuses on career and identity development in adolescence. In 2004 she received a $441,530 CAREER grant from the National Science Foundation, and in 2005 she received the prestigious Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers for her groundbreaking work examining the impact of locally based community organizations, mentoring, and home and school environments on the transition of low-income urban youth from high school to postsecondary education or work.

"I have a great commitment to programs that support young women, and I'm inspired by ACT NOW's work," Packard said. "As a researcher, I'm interested in trying to disentangle the outcomes and figure out where this experience falls--for which students was it an important experience, and how did it influence their pathways?"

ACT NOW uses a format called MOVIExperience, in which players brainstorm an original story, create characters, improvise the scenes before a videographer, and screen a professional-looking 20- to 40-minute movie immediately after the last scene is shot.

"The feedback I get reinforces my initial hunch that this would be a valuable process for girls," Fletcher said. "To have independent 'scientific' evidence that corroborates what girls, parents, and staff have been telling us for six years will give us the credibility we need to attract more funds and reach more girls."

ACT NOW board chair Gail Champlin, director of University of Hartford's Center for Professional Development, sees the technique as an efficient way to help address the costly community problems that stem from low self-esteem. "By revealing the undermining discrepancies between commercial, female images and girls' own self-images," she said, "the MOVIExperience presents viable options that reflect girls' realities."

Fletcher remembers a potential dropout who was so inspired she decided to stay in school, a foster child whose hygiene noticeably improved, and a girl with a chip on her shoulder that melted when she got behind the lens.

ACT NOW, supported by community foundations, women's funds, and others, works through schools, agencies, recreational facilities, and camps from Amherst to Arizona. Several times a year, it offers the process directly to the public with a five-day program.

When it opens, the new Amherst Cinema and Arts Center plans to screen the most recent movie, Far from Perfect, which was created by 20 girls from western Massachusetts and sponsored by Amherst Community Television.

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Becky Wai-Ling Packard - Faculty Profile