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Stepping Up to Take the Lead: MHC Helps Young Women Transform Ideals Into Action
-- Mentors as Motivators: A Q&A with Becky Packard, Ph.D

The French Connection: Maria Svrckova '05's Internship with the European Union
-- Connected to the World: MHC's Advantages

Second Chances: Sarah Trembley '01 Journeys from Teenage Motherhood to Veterinary Pathology


Mount Holyoke College News and Events College Street Journal Vista


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 and again."

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," said Valliani.

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.

Inspiring One Another
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 us."

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."

Chiamaka Nwakeze, 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.

From "What?" 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.

The transformation 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 each other."

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."

After 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?' "

Taking the Lead
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 China.

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 a chance."

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 future generations."

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.

Becky 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.

Why 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 your career?
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 it genetic?
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.


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