College Board Forum: Smart Girls Change the Narrative
College Board Forum: Smart Girls Change the NarrativeCrystal Barrick, Assistant Director, Communications
College Board President and CEO David Coleman kicked off this year’s Annual Forum with both a commitment and a call to action: “The next generation of students needs to be confident they can own their future. That’s what the College Board must be about. That’s what we will be about.”
The plenary speaker and panel of “smart girls” that followed showed how powerful that kind of confidence can be.
Meredith Walker, the cofounder and executive director of Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls, opened the conference with a bold idea, inspired by an e.e. cummings poem: “You change the world by being yourself.” She calls Smart Girls a “cyber clubhouse,” an online community that encourages girls to be confident in who they are at a time when that can be most difficult—adolescence. But since founding the organization with Amy Poehler, she’s seen women at many different moments in their lives embrace and appreciate that ethos.
Through her daily work at Smart Girls, Walker deeply stresses “the deepening of a person, not only the acquisition of honors” throughout life. “And it really takes effort” to do that, she acknowledged. “It means stopping and checking in with yourself as you’re achieving and accomplishing. It means being curious about yourself all the time and about the people around you who are different.” Without this attitude of openness and awareness, she warned, accomplishments and major career-markers can feel hollow. “Too many people burn out without ever being on fire in the first place,” said Walker. “Ask who you want to be, not what.”
Walker then turned to some authorities on the subject—a panel of college students who are all, in their own ways, changing the world by being themselves.
Rachel Ensing, a second year graduate student at the University of Miami, is working on increasing access to higher education, especially for Native American students like herself. “We need to let students know it’s okay to be vulnerable and to talk about their identities,” she said. And she reminded the educators in the audience: “We need to change the narrative of what we think of when we think of a college student.”
Nancy Le, a Jack Kent Cooke College Scholar at Northwestern University, talked about the pivotal role many kind and knowledgeable educators played in her path to college. She’s now studying biochemistry and sociology and thinking about medical school.
Wilglory Tanjong echoed the importance of educators taking an interest in their students’ lives, inside and outside of the classroom. “Never underestimate the impact you can have in a student’s life,” she said. While friends of hers were incredulous when she said she wanted to go to Princeton University, her counselor made sure she had the resources and support she needed to make it happen. “Try to tell students what they can be, not just what they can’t be. We need to verbally declare to girls that they can be scientists, doctors, and lawyers. If I didn’t believe that, if I didn’t believe in myself, I wouldn’t be here today.”
Gabrielee Valle, a first year student at Smith College, reminded the audience of educators the importance of connecting to their students—if they are first-generation students, they should let their students know. “Let them see what’s possible, that people like them can be successful like you.”
Fiona, an aspiring neurologist at the University of Oregon, closed with an inspiring reminder. “I would like everyone to know they can and should be a resource for students who want to go to college. Everyone who went to college knows something that can get students there. Every educator in this room can at least be a cheerleader who says go, go, go – I believe in you.”
Walker noted that each of these young women is a shining example of what’s possible when you follow the Smart Girls philosophy. She closed: “Strive for human decency and for your own truth. Don’t bully. Be curious about people who are different. Forge your own interests. Be mindful of everyday joys, and get your hair wet. Let your goofy side be seen. Live a great story.”