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Closing the Ambition Gap

Posted by Lilli Schussler Jul 7, 2014

This is the first installment in a six-post series about SWSG’s model and impact. In light of 10 years of strong work, this series shows the impact of SWSG’s model and connects it to current events and research about girls and women today.

I remember one of my most dreaded school assignments: definitions. This meant flipping through a dictionary and writing painstakingly long definitions on a sheet of yellow lined paper. We would then have to write the word five times, to ensure our memorization of the spelling, and then use the word in an example sentence. As a young girl, I remember this sometimes being difficult — I always looked to the dictionary’s sample sentence to model my own.

“Aspiration” is great inspiration for a lesson, not just as part of a larger unit on vocabulary but as a key concept in itself. As students enter the schooling system, they embark on a journey to understand themselves and where they fit in society — much of which has a connection to the aspirations that they will begin formulating.

Picture this: a group of children in a classroom are given the task of looking up the definition of “aspiration” and then write an example sentence. If they go to Dictionary.com, they will get a clear, concise definition: “a strong desire, ambition, or aim; a goal or objective desired.” The idea of having an “aspiration” is not gendered — or at least, it shouldn’t be. They then look to this same website to get an example sentence upon which to model their own. This is what they see:

“The presidency is the traditional aspiration of young American boys.”

Does Dictonary.com know this for sure? Do they know, without a shadow of a doubt, that girls have never aspired to be the President? A young, confident, expressive girl reads this sentence and thinks, “Oh…I guess it’s not normal for girls to want to be the President.”

From a young age, girls are told what they should and should not aspire to. They are told by the media, by their schooling institutions, and by resources as basic as the dictionary. While a sample definition may seem insignificant, such instances of male preference add up to create a society that socializes girls to believe that they cannot accomplish what they set their minds to.

At Strong Women, Strong Girls, we hope to give our girls a space to foster their aspirations, whether they are to be a mother, artist, scientist, or even the President. We show them importance of determination and the looking past societal norms of female aspiration.

During each program year, girls get to know their college mentors and get the opportunity to go on a college visit with their mentors, an experience that has proven to be one of the most formative for the girls of our program. To step onto the quad of a school like Harvard as a young girl, with the young women they have spent months laughing, learning, and connecting with makes the path to college seem within reach. Prior to their involvement with SWSG, this path may have seemed impossible.

One of our girls holds up a cut-out of a graduation cap in an activity on aspiration.

In an activity on aspiration, one of our girls proudly displays a paper cut-out of a graduation cap.

In the 2013-2014 program year, approximately 98% of our girls showed an increased interest in college and sense of aspirations. One mentor recalls, “One of our girls who recently immigrated to the US was filling out [a] survey during SWSG. While she was doing it, she turned to me and said, ‘I really like how SWSG tells me I can do anything I want to do when I grow up. I can be anything, you know?’

This is how we close the ambition gap. This is how we create a society of girls that are ready to take on anything they put their mind to, while always supporting each other along the way. As stated by Hillary Clinton, “Women are the world’s most underused resource.” Let’s make people know the potential of our girls, too.

It is with the meticulously formulated curriculum of SWSG that all of these pieces come together.  Through combining efforts to showcase the importance of girls’ leadership, skills, high self-esteem, community service, and female community, our girls — and college mentors — get steps closer to seeing their aspirations come to life.

Emily Kindschy is the SWSG Research and Development intern. She is a 2014 graduate of Lesley University and MSW candidate. She hopes to use her background and future education to improve the lives of women and girls across the world through direct service work and policy.

$30 gives college mentors the tools needed to be role models.