As one of their first acts in the YWCA Metro St. Louis Young Women's Leadership Academy last week, the student participants all wrote poems about themselves and recited them aloud to the group.Marquette High's
five participants - Sarah Bergantz, Phoebe Calabrese, Asia Dale, Tamima Hasan and Ivy Williams - were among the first to share their works with the group of four mentors and 10 other rising high school seniors from the St. Louis area.
"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."
The Marquette students took part in a week's worth of virtual leadership training through the YWCA. Marquette Associate Principal Tracey Waeckerle sent an email to rising senior women at the school who met the GPA criteria for the program, encouraging them to apply.
"The thing that really caught my eye was the empowerment part," 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."
Each day involved a four-hour Zoom session with the whole group in the morning, guest speakers, 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 life and something they wanted to take on.
"The women were very empowering and inspired me. They told us that we define ourselves," Dale said. "I liked how everyone had such different things, from letting go of all the bad things happening in the world and starting to exercise, to letting go of sleeping bad and wanting to learn how to make a cake. It was cool to see how different everybody was."
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.
Calabrese 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. This experience has shown me that it's OK to fail and make mistakes, as long as you can rebound and keep striving for your goals."
While the program concluded June 12, the participants have the opportunity to follow up with their fellow students and mentors going forward.
Aside from the Marquette contingent, participants came from schools such as Ritenour, Lutheran North, McCluer and Incarnate Word.
"I thoroughly enjoyed getting to meet those people who I might not get to be friends with through other paths and who have similar interests and values as me," Bergantz said. "We all want to prepare for the future and become leaders and make a difference in our society."
At the end of the week, after only seeing each other over Zoom, they all came together for a socially distanced ice cream meet-up.
"We talked a lot about collaboration," Williams said, "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. It was very inspiring building the support system and the connection we have from being in the program."