2011 Changemakers: Girls Getting Ahead in Leadership

WISE mentoring program helps low-income immigrant and refugee high school girls succeed

April Htoo is a quietly confident young woman from Burma with dreams of a career in science.

She started participating in the Girls Getting Ahead in Leadership (GGAL) program as a high school sophomore. Coming to the United States from a refugee camp in Thailand, Htoo, now a senior, recalled the challenges of beginning school in a new place.

“The U.S.-born students spoke really good, really fast. I’m shy, so it was harder for me to speak. [At GGAL], I got to practice. Now I’m confident I can speak. I built the skills that I could bring to my school. GGAL helped me a lot.”

GGAL is a program of Women’s Initiative for Self-Empowerment (WISE) that provides opportunities for 10th-12th grade immigrant and refugee girls to improve their academics, prepare for college and build strong leadership skills. The girls are mentored by volunteers who are college-aged or professional women.

“GGAL executes that by building on English literacy skills,” said Program Coordinator Sarah Gerdes. “The students have to take the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments (MCAs) yearly, and reading, writing and math are requirements to graduate from high school. The program helps build essential skills to do this.”

The girls attend weekly workshops and focus on their futures with support through the college application process and campus field trips. They build life experience through service learning projects and make connections with other youth organizations. They gain information on facilitating change through the civic component of the program.

Self-esteem and confidence building are the major successes that Gerdes recognizes. “At the end-of-the-year GGAL celebrations, the girls talk about what they’ve accomplished; those skills translate into other parts of their lives,” she said.

GGAL serves a multicultural group of girls from diverse backgrounds, including girls from the Hmong, Karen, Oromo and Somali communities. But, as Htoo described, “At GGAL, we’re all the same.” There is also focus on shared experience. GGAL provides a female-centered environment where participants can let their guard down and feel safe interacting-understanding how the same issues can affect girls from different countries. Recognizing the direct impact between well-being and academic success, a new component that GGAL plans to build into its offering, is a wellness support group.

The success of GGAL is also evident in the numbers. “During the 2010-2011 program year, 10 of the 11 seniors participating went on to college,” said Prisca Okeahialam-Swaray, WISE Youth Program Coordinator. Since the program’s inception in 2003, GGAL has seen over 100 young women move on to college, and now offers a group for GGAL alums.

Angela Wendler was a junior at the University of Minnesota when she found out about the opportunity to serve as a mentor in the GGAL program. Raised in a family where volunteerism and giving back to the community were expected, Wendler compared the GGAL program to the support system her own parents provided. “The girls slowly become more independent and confident so that they can go out into the world and be successful-that’s a huge accomplishment, and the program does its job. I was happy to be part of that. You’re there for the girls. And you’re part of something bigger than yourself.”

Mentors are needed to help with career goal development, as well as college application, scholarship application and financial aid application preparation.

FFI: Prisca Okeahialam-Swaray, prisca@womenofwise.org or Sarah Priyanka Gerdes, sarah@womenofwise.org