WINTER 2004 / VOLUME
9, NUMBER 2
Stepping Up to Take the Lead
MHC Helps Young Women
Transform Ideals into Action
"Get close to the
earth," dancer Marilyn Middleton-Sylla urged Take the Lead participants
who had gathered for a Friday night workshop on West African dance.
"Move your hips; everybody has hips." Barefoot, the teens swayed
their way through Afunga, the dance of welcome, accompanied by
three musicians playing djembe drums. At the end of the hour,
Middleton-Sylla clapped appreciatively as the students, divided
into four villages, danced their welcome for her. "Excellent.
Nice smile, nice smile. I'm going to come back to visit you again
BY JIM GIPE
Afterwards, the students
swayed their way from the campus dance studio to a nearby coffeehouse
for a 10 pmround of chai smoothies and decaf lattes. Cooling off
at an outside table, three of them raved about the dance lesson.
"Afunga--I dig it,"
said Amira Valliani of Fremont, California. Sarah Kay (above,
center) of New York City, and Elizabeth DuMont-McCaffrey of Amherst,
Massachusetts, both agreed. "It should be the new craze in high
schools across America," added Kay.
But West African
dance wasn't their only topic of lively conversation that night.
Valliani, DuMont-McCaffrey, and Kay, like the other Take the Lead
participants, had come to Mount Holyoke intent on changing the
world. For Valliani, that meant reducing voter apathy among young
people. DuMont-McCaffrey's focus
was stopping the abuse of Cambodian children by Western "sex tourists."
Kay wanted to organize "open mike" events where teens could experience
creative self-expression and free speech. Twenty-four hours into
Take the Lead--after unwinding from a day of intensive workshops
with dance and coffeehouse conversation--those ambitions were
stepping off paper and into life. "It's definitely become real,"
And that, said Take
the Lead director and founder Patricia VandenBerg, is the point.
"Take the Lead gives young women the tools to transform ideas
for social change into action. It shows them that they are capable
of achieving goals well beyond what they have imagined," explained
VandenBerg, who also is Mount Holyoke College's executive director
of communications and strategic initiatives.
Take the Lead is a four-day conference that brings 40 ambitious,
idealistic high school juniors from throughout the United States
to the Mount Holyoke campus for workshops and activities that
build leadership skills. Since its inception in 1999, the program
has grown increasingly popular--and competitive. This year, there
were 325 applications for the 40 slots. Participants are responsible
only for a $50 registration fee and their travel expenses; the
program, lodging, and all meals are provided by the College. A
generous $180,000 grant given by Jean Beard of Amherst through
her Icarus Foundation is helping to support the cost of Take the
Lead for three years and underwriting research that will assess
the long-term effects of the program on participants. Beard, who
had no previous affiliation with Mount Holyoke, was inspired to
get involved after learning about the program from VandenBerg.
Along with offering financial support, she spent the weekend with
participants as a program volunteer.
When young women
come to Take the Lead, each brings with her a project idea aimed
at addressing a specific issue in her school, community, or the
world. Upon arrival, she is paired with a Mount Holyoke student
who has been trained as a mentor by the College's Weissman Center
for Leadership and the Liberal Arts. In addition to hosting participants
in their dorm rooms, mentors also help their mentees shape project
ideas into action plans to be implemented back home. "Mentors
serve as personal coaches and consultants. They help participants
get beyond wishful thinking," said Sarah Grolnic-McClurg, Take
the Lead's assistant director. "Mentors stay in touch with their
mentees by email and continue offering support. We're delighted
that three Take the Lead alumnae now attend Mount Holyoke and
are serving as mentors."
One of those alumnae,
Heidi Roop '07, welcomed participants at the Thursday night pizza
party that kicked off the weekend. Roop, a Wisconsin native, recounted
arriving at Take the Lead "tired" and leaving "inspired." Her
project idea focused on trying to save the monarch butterfly from
extinction by reducing deforestation in Michoacán, Mexico,
the monarch's winter breeding ground. During the weekend, with
the help of her mentor, Roop shaped a project to support Michoacán's
impoverished schools and, in turn, help educate its children about
the environmental impact of deforestation. The Monarch Watch School
Supplies Drive that she organized back home raised more than $15,000
in supplies. In closing, Roop offered participants her "Top Ten
Take the Lead Survival Tips," which included "be confident in
yourself and your project idea."
Throughout the weekend,
VandenBerg reiterated that message, reminding participants that
they were smart, competent young women. "You all deserve to be
here, and we couldn't be more thrilled," she said. "You inspire
The morning after
their arrival, the participants found themselves inspiring one
another. Following breakfast, they gathered to introduce their
project ideas--ambitious, innovative ideas that ranged from protecting
coral reefs to preventing bullying. Whether the participant hailed
from Salt Lake City or Philadelphia, she spoke passionately about
her issue. When it was Melodie Chou's turn to speak, the Glencoe,
Illinois, resident stated her intention to build a school in rural
China. "But I don't just want to raise the funds," she added.
"I'm interested in architecture so I also want to help design
an efficient building."
of New Rochelle, New York, described her desire to improve academic
opportunities for minority students. Mary Bristol, a South Hadley
resident, talked about primary pulmonary hypertension, an incurable
and little understood disease that had taken the life of her 17-year-old
cousin. "I couldn't help Carolyn, but I need to help others affected
by this disease," she concluded. Two days later, participant Sarah
Kay reflected upon how she had felt listening to her peers' project
ideas. "No matter what the idea was, everyone was given equal
respect and hope. I thought that was wonderful," she said.
to "So What?" to "Now What?"
In a way, Take
the Lead boils down to three minutes. All weekend, participants
work on developing a three-minute presentation to assist them
in gaining support and enlisting allies when they return home.
At the start, when VandenBerg (above, far left) asked if anyone
felt anxious about the presentation component, the majority raised
their hands. "You'll be ready," she assured them. Forty-eight
hours later, a sampling of confident participants took the podium
before an overflow crowd and presented polished, compelling statements
describing their cause, why it mattered, what they intended to
do about it, and how the audience could help.
that occurred between Friday and Sunday is part of Take the Lead's
carefully planned magic. The program's winning formula offers
a mix of inspirational speakers, skill-building workshops, one-on-one
mentoring, and stimulating social activities. "Participants focus
on a three-minute presentation, but in the process they develop
leadership skills for a lifetime," VandenBerg said. "We watch
their confidence bloom as they recognize the power of being youthful,
articulate, and passionate. Take the Lead also creates a network
for these dynamic young women so they can continue to support
At the core of Take
the Lead is VandenBerg's "leadership
change" model, a comprehensive system that helps participants
articulate their vision, develop strategy, and implement change.
The model, which VandenBerg developed specifically for this program,
stems from her many years of teaching, gaining support for and
running programs, and leading organizations through change. "My
goal was to create a simple way for students to think about complex
processes," VandenBerg explained. "I wanted a way for them to
break down large challenges that can seem overwhelming; a way
for them to tap into their deep caring about the world and get
others on board." As for why it works, she credits the leadership
change model's practical nature. "It helps students think in concrete
terms. If they get stuck, it offers hints that help them to figure
out something to do to keep moving forward."
getting acquainted with the leadership change model, participants
welcomed Simi Sanni Nwogugu '97, a woman who knows firsthand that
passion and strategy truly can change the world. Nwogugu recounted
how, during a trip home to Nigeria after embarking on an investment-banking
career in New York City, she was appalled by her country's declining
education system. "I wanted to do something to instill hope,"
she said. That "something" turned out to be moving back to Nigeria
and convincing influential businesspeople to join her in launching
a Junior Achievement program that continues to help educate and
inspire future business leaders. Reflecting on the program's success
and what, against all odds, she managed to accomplish at age 24,
Nwogugu offered this advice: "Use your age--it is an advantage.
Know yourself. Know your skills. And find mentors who can really
be invested in your life."
Along with attending
workshops on community organizing, fundraising, and getting publicity,
participants were introduced to conflict resolution skills by
Rene Davis, the College's director of residential life. They also
attended a workshop titled "Pointers on Speaking," presented by
Azeen Khan '05 and Susan Pliner, director of Mount Holyoke's Speaking,
Arguing, and Writing Center. This introduction to the structural
and stylistic essentials of a persuasive speech trained participants
how to, in Pliner's words, move "from 'what?' to 'so what?' to
'now what?' "
During lunch on Friday, Melodie Chou acknowledged that as much
as she wanted to build a school in China, she wasn't sure her
idea could work. Two days later, in the conclusion of her three-minute
presentation, she told the audience, "I realize this goal is very
ambitious, but I know it can happen." The plan she developed with
her mentor, Margaret Jensen '07, involved forming a school club
to join forces with EEP Youth (Enlightening Education Program
Youth), a California-based organization of high school and college
students that supports disadvantaged children in rural areas of
Amira Valliani, too,
now had a concrete plan. Her presentation outlined a strategy
for connecting young voters with local grassroots organizations
that, in turn, could link them with legislators and get them involved
with local, state, and national issues. "I want to make getting
involved easily accessible," she said.
During her three
minutes, Chiamaka Nwakeze chronicled her own experience with limited
educational opportunities back when she lived in the Bronx. She
then described a plan for creating a Web site offering minority
students information on scholarships, local mentors, and college
application tips, as well as establishing a scholarship fund.
"You cannot and must not fault the child who has not been given
equal opportunities," Nwakeze concluded. "Help me give these students
Assisted by mentor
Erica Berman '05, Kate Wiber, of Gladwyne, Pennsylvania, developed
a plan to use the performing arts to teach social skills. In her
presentation, Wiber described being shocked when working as a
fourth-grade helper by the children's lack of consideration for
each other. "Through acting and dance, I want to teach empathy,
listening, etiquette, and teamwork," she said. "These very young
students are our future leaders. They will set an example for
On Sunday, the gutsy
example that Wiber and the other members of the Take the Lead
class of 2004 were setting for their own generation was saluted
at a graduation ceremony. Following an address by Caitlin Gorski,
a Take the Lead alumna whose action project led to Boston's first
job fair for the homeless, VandenBerg thanked participants for
"choosing to leave your lives for a weekend and come here. You
give me hope, and for that I thank every one of you."
One Take the Lead
participant's response summed up the group's collective feeling.
"What sticks with me," she said, "[are Gandhi's words,] 'Be the
change you wish to see in the world.' " Then, 40 young women stood
up to get started.
a q&a with becky packard, ph.d.
Wai-Ling Packard, assistant professor of psychology and
education at Mount Holyoke, is interested in the intersection
of adolescent motivation, identity, and mentoring. Packard,
who recently won a prestigious CAREER grant from the National
Science Foundation to study how low-income urban youth develop
and pursue interests and careers in science and technology,
has been involved with Take the Lead since its inception
as both an adviser and keynote speaker. Vista caught up
with Packard to discuss her latest research findings.
are programs like Take the Lead so important for young women?
Programs like Take the Lead provide a space in which young
women can find peers across the country who share their
passion to make positive changes in the world. The network
they establish, consisting of peers and adults, provides
inspiration and colleagueship as the young women move forward
in their leadership goals.
What are the motivational implications
of identity and "possible selves"?
Our possible selves, or the people we hope to become or
fear becoming in the future, help guide how we spend our
time. We are motivated to spend our time doing things that
will help us to become our hoped-for selves and to avoid
becoming our feared selves.
How did your own background inform
I am part of the first generation in my family to gain a
four-year college degree. I am very aware that the pursuit
of meaningful work can be a luxury in today's world. I wanted
to become an educational psychologist because I wanted to
increase access to higher education to young people and
create exciting opportunities for learning and mentoring.
Can motivation be learned or is
I don't believe that there are unmotivated people. I think
we are all motivated, but for different things, and we can
all increase our motivational capacities. Inspirational
teachers and mentors can help to foster motivation.
You've developed a theory called
"composite mentoring." What is it, and what role does it
play in the educational success of adolescents?
Composite mentoring refers to a model of mentoring. The
individual envisions who she wants to become in the future,
and instead of finding one mentor to help her get there
or searching for one role model to emulate, she selects
a diverse set of mentors and role models to help her reach
her future goals. All too often, adolescents do not realize
that they can envision new identities, rather than just
following what others have already done, or that they deserve
many mentors. Seeking input, advice, and resources from
multiple individuals can be critical to reaching goals.
How do women network with each
other, and how is this different from the way men do it?
There may be some similarities in how women and men network;
however, it is also the case that women who are striving
to pursue nontraditional fields that are predominantly male
need to be aware that they are not likely to have access
to mentors who look just like them or even have the same
kinds of concerns. Consistent with composite mentoring,
women need to seek mentoring from a variety of people. For
example, one woman may have a male supervisor who provides
constructive feedback on her work, a female peer who can
support her emotionally, and a long-distance colleague who
provides information over email about how to overcome a
particular barrier. Women may just need to be a bit more
creative and persistent in developing their networks.
What advice would you give to young
women who want to pursue careers in science and technology?
Learn all you can about the field, including all of the
new and exciting opportunities, and feel free to move around
and try on various aspects of the field. Do not be discouraged
by a bad experience with a teacher or someone who tries
to discourage you -- realize that negative experiences happen
to us all and be sure to find support in times of doubt.
Be a strong supporter of your peers, and find peers who
support you. Finally, seek out the experiences and resources
of those who are in positions that you admire. You may be
surprised at how many people are willing to support you.