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Strong Women, Strong Girls: 'We want them to dream bigger'

This program's mission is to create communities of strong, successful women today; support strong, successful women of tomorrow.

Strong Women, Strong Girls: 'We want them to dream bigger'

Photo credit: Hannah Cohen

What do you want to be when you grow up? “A doctor,” she says.

For 10-year-old girls like my sister, it’s animated television shows like Doc McStuffins—a Disney series about a girl who decides she wants to become a doctor just like her mother—that expose girls to the career possibilities for women. 

“I want to help people,” my sister says. “And I love math.” Studies show that exposure to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields and influential women is the key to getting girls to see that their career options are limitless.

Strong Women, Strong Girls (SWSG), a nationally recognized mentorship organization, understands the importance of exposing positive female role models to young girls at the prime developmental age of eight to 10. The nonprofit works to foster mentoring relationships between professional mentors, college women and pre-adolescent girls in underserved communities to help raise ambition and combat the dangers of low self-esteem.

“When I was a young, I didn’t understand how many different things women could do. I see our work as part of this movement—to get women into leadership roles in media, tech, engineering, politics, business and nonprofit—all across various sectors,” said Siiri Morley, Executive Director of SWSG in Boston.

Combatting low self-esteem and raising ambition

SWSG girls participate in a field trip at Harvard University, where their college-aged mentors are students. Photo credit: Jonathan Haar

SWSG has college chapters along the East Coast from Boston to Pittsburgh and its Boston location partners with six institutions of higher education—Boston College, Harvard University, Northeastern University, Simmons College, Tufts University and University of Massachusetts-Boston. Through these partnerships, SWSG engages mentors to volunteer at a partner elementary school or community-based program site where they meet with 10 to 12 girls and work off of a SWSG curriculum. The curriculum looks at contemporary and historical women, including First Lady Michelle Obama, Betty Ford, Maya Angelou, Oprah and many others.

SWSG Boston, which celebrated going 10 years strong in 2014, has served more than 9,000 girls in 60-plus communities and has worked with more than 3,000 college mentors.

“Girls are an incredibly powerful force for positive change in the world. They also face unique challenges and vulnerability—particularly those girls who grow up in under-resourced communities, where exposure to options for college and careers are limited,” said Sarah Kacevich, SWSG Strong Leaders Program coordinator and FAO Schwarz Family Foundation Fellow.

Research shows that a girl’s self-esteem peaks at age nine and does not return to the same level until age 35. SWSG uses a structured mentoring approach to reinforce confidence, expand aspirations and create a civically engaged life for women and girls.

“If we’re successful, we’ll set a path for the classroom, the boardroom or whatever destination. We want them to dream bigger,” said Morley.

Excitement builds for SWSG girls at 2014's Jump into Spring, SWSG's annual community event for girls, families, mentors, school staff and supporters. Photo credit: Hannah Cohen

SWSG began at Harvard University in 2000 thanks to founder, Lindsay Hyde, who grew the program from a student group to a full-fledged nonprofit organization and led it through its expansion.

“Our founding story is a testament to what women and girls can accomplish when they believe in the power of their dreams and receive support from mentors. True to our values, still today, SWSG is powered by young women who are entrusted to take on immense responsibility and leadership,” said Kacevich.

“It's all part of changing the ratio for women and girls and getting more women at table so we can shape policies, laws, practices, more equality, less violence and equal opportunity,” said Morley.  

Success by numbers, giving back

SWSG reports 90% of parents planned to enroll their daughters into SWSG again heading into 2013 and more than 85% of girls report increased social-emotional skills, self-esteem and leadership.

“SWSG girls often say that the program is a place for them to be themselves, find friends and mentors who are their true allies and learn about heroes they can look up to. It broadens their vision of their lives’ possibilities and helps them learn skills to stand up for themselves and others when facing challenges like bullying or shyness. College and professional women gain life-long relationships, become part of a positive female community where they can find support and gain critical leadership skills,” said Kacevich.

SWSG data shows:

  • 100% of site liaisons saw mentors show increased leadership capabilities
  • 85% of mentors reported an increased connection to a female community
  • 93% of mentors reported increased desire to participate in community service
  • 95% of professional mentors reported increased communication, mentoring and coaching skills

Marynee Pontes, a student at Tufts University triple majoring in International Relations, Economics, and Africana Studies, attended a SWSG after-school program 11 years ago. Pontes recently joined SWSG as a mentor.

“[Marynee] said something along the lines that she wouldn’t be in college if it weren’t for SWSG. She’s an example of the path we believe we’re setting girls on. One thing we want to do is better measure what happens next,” said Morley.

Pontes shared that “the girls I was blessed to mentor are smart, funny, witty, and most importantly, strong. I saw myself in many of these girls: eager to learn, explore and grow. After I told them I was in Strong Women, Strong Girls at their age, I could see them connect with me and realized the role I would play in their lives. One of the most rewarding experiences was when a student wrote in her journal, ‘I want to be a smart Strong Women, Strong Girls mentor like you!"

"I am a strong girl now, and I will be a strong woman, too!”

A long-lasting legacy

Boston City Councilor-at-Large Ayanna Presley delivers an upbeat keynote address at Jump into Spring in April 2014. Photo credit: Hannah Cohen

“SWSG envisions a world where every women and girl is empowered with the skills, relationships and role models to navigate the challenges of girl- and womanhood en route to becoming a confident woman in whatever life path she chooses," said Kacevich. 

"Our legacy means that every girl and woman has access to those tools, regardless of the background she grows up in. We hope to foster a shift in society toward greater representation of women from diverse backgrounds in positions of visibility and leadership."

Liz Torres can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @etorres446.  

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