Bring Back our Girls: Women and Girls in English and History Curriculums

By Tyler Bowders- Looking at Us Guest Blogger 

            In high school I stumbled upon, who I thought to be, an obscure British author of modernist literature. Her name: Virginia Woolf. The book: Mrs. Dalloway. It must be stated clearly and upfront that I only encountered this book through a fascination with Meryl Streep and her work in The Hours. Neither in high school, nor college, was I assigned as much as a quote of Virginia Woolf’s work. The fact that Virginia Woolf has been left to fade into the background of dusty, aging, history textbooks and reading anthologies should cause us all to take pause. Woolf is one example of the profound contributions that women and girls have made to literature and history, only to gradually drift to the background. Very recently, it was brought to my attention through a friend’s anecdote that The Diary of Anne Frank was offered to her only once during her educational career via a listing under “suggested readings.” By contrast, she read Elie Weisel’s Night multiple times.

            The questions these instances raise are numerous and obvious: Why have these authors and historical figures been left behind? Should the entirety of the Western Canon be placed under the Bechtel test? Should high schools carve out portions in history classes to better reflect the contributions of women? Just to name a few. The call to action is what matters most. It is not a matter of “if” and “when” we should bring our girls back into the English and History classrooms, but simply a matter of how?

            As an aspiring educator this weighs heavily on my mind. Girls and women comprise a higher percentage of enrollments in high school and college classes than ever before- a trend that is only anticipated to rise. Therefore, it has never been more important that they be able to see themselves reflected in the text and the history that they will examine. They need to know that their history does, in fact, have a place in the larger historical narrative and is more than an elective or inter-disciplinary department. It is clear that 51% of the population is not having their stories told.

            In the interest of providing solutions I have come up with a few simple ways in which educators can rectify this imbalance. John Stuart’s Mill’s On the Subjugation of Women should serve as a supplement to Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication on the Rights of Women. Let the female voice speak for herself first. Teaching the Constitution should include a reading of Abigail Adams’ plea for her husband to “remember the ladies.” He didn’t and neither have we. The famous midnight ride of Paul Revere was actually only half the length of the ride of his female contemporary, 16 year-old Sybil Luddington, yet many of us may not know she existed. These are not examples of supplemental information or suggested readings. They are important parts of a well-rounded education, the lack of which is short-changing students of all genders. There is no reason to send a girl off to college without having taught her that she can run for President, or that she can invent and refine entire literary movements, or that she can lead an army into battle. She is more than a Queen famously known for having instructed her people to eat cake, an anecdote which is not even accurate. She is more than a wrongly accused witch in an Arthur Miller play. She is more than a fashion-forward First Lady.

            Literature and History curriculums are littered with the works and lives of women and girls who didn’t make the cut. It is time to bring back our girls. If she can see it, if she can read it, she will know she can be it. If he can see it, if he can read it, he will know she can be it and  at least give her the proper fighting chance.

“Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.” Virginia’s words pack quite a punch. They should be taken with the utmost seriousness which she intended. “What a Lark, what a plunge” it will be to finally set our girls free.           


International Women's Day: Not Feeling very Bold for Change

By GIRLWITHABOOK Chief Programming Officer, Adriana Ganci 

We at GIRLWITHABOOK and in the development community get excited by the international days recognized by the United Nations. The UN is, of course, not without its flaws. But the purpose of these international days isn’t directly intended to shape policy, but is intended to educate people, bring leaders in the field together, and start a conversation. All good things! Why, then, was I feeling so emotionally exhausted and helpless after the recent International Women’s Day? The theme was “Be Bold for Change.” I wasn’t feeling bold. At all. 

Now, speaking as an American it’s safe to say the last year or so (particularly the last few months) have been…..erm……..tumultuous? Yeah! Tumultuous! As with any strong storm one is forced to weather, it is exhausting, disheartening, and can seem downright unfair- I have made good decisions in my life. Why can’t we all hold up our ends of the bargain in this storm? I don’t need it to be raining unicorns from the heavens, but bloody hell, give us a break. 

For one thing, education rights in this country are precariously teetering on the edge of failure for a large percentage of children in the U.S. Not to mention that women’s rights- including their health, their pay, & protection from all forms of violence- seem to be up for debate on a daily basis. As an American working with a non-profit focused on supporting girls’ education, it feels pathetic that I can’t look to my immediate surroundings for support, let alone advice or guidance. Recent history has highlighted problems the U.S. has always had and in no way has invented any of these points. I fully admit that my helplessness is coming from a decrease in morale. Different intersections of our population have felt the ramification of every kind of “ism” under the sun far before now. For a Joe Shmo like myself, it has felt recent that these isms have taken over the papers and the news and Facebook and Thanksgiving dinner conversations. Of course that’s the case for those of us who are privileged enough that they haven’t always been in the forefront of our minds. Waking up and finding yourself in a climate where people speak proudly of their racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism feels like a daily punch right to the gut. It budded as anger, but it grew into a galvanizing force while many of us could still extract the power of our own passions from the power of other people’s hatred. Before long, though, my passion turned back into anger. An absolutely all-consuming anger. And now it is very very exhausting. Spar with an iron fist long enough and eventually you are going to bleed. 

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, there’s a resounding, “See?! We told you this was a thing!” from those who have been feeling the sting far before now. 

It’s also disheartening to think of the giant knowledge deficit we are creating. We become obsessed with a few select topics. So the media becomes saturated with a few select topics. [There’s a chicken and an egg argument here between the people and the media. Both are valid.] So we become more obsessed with these topics. So the media becomes even more saturated with these topics. But NEWSFLASH (pun intended)! There are other very complex issues which existed far before 2017 and will exist long after. Especially given the hyper-focus on our current hand of cards. And the U.S. being arguably the most powerful nation in the world, a national spotlight becomes a global spotlight. The ways in which girls are prevented from getting access to primary education in the developing world should have caused a loud international uproar long ago. And in certain pockets, it has. But now it feels like we are going back to the ABCs of civics as opposed to putting our energy into analyzing the finer nuances of these very complex problems that sit at the nexus of gender, education, economics, and public health and working towards solutions that incorporate all facets of that very delicate development web. Even reflecting on the U.S.’s bad behavior is inherently Eurocentric thinking. It feels like as a society our resources are being poured with a very heavy hand into matters that shouldn’t need to be on the agenda anymore, let alone be international priorities. My heart was bleeding for the people and the places we weren’t talking about. 

If you’re anything like me, you feel like we’ve all been thrown into a giant hole that someone else dug and now we’re struggling to get out. In terms of the five stages of grief, I had gone from denial to anger and have since bounced back to denial, am ready to set up camp at the bottom of this hole and perhaps get direct TV service, a lava lamp, and one of those slushy machines for margaritas. The world is too far gone. Lil’ ol’ me isn’t gonna change that anytime soon. Pass the popcorn.

But as I was finalizing my home decor order on Amazon, I had an ah-ha moment- I am actually being self- centered in the anguish I’m feeling for women across the globe. 

Women have faced an uphill battle since cave people were rubbing sticks together. Before we had international organizations like the UN, before we had NGOs, before we had pervasive globalization, before we had women politicians to look up to and women candidates willing to brave the large risk of losing, before we had Facebook and Twitter and the ability to share our thoughts and absorb the thoughts of others with the click of a button……  Women survived. They found ways to thrive. They existed steadfast in their worlds with the power of storytelling. Storytelling and womanhood are analogous and symbiotic. In a world where the power holder (in this case, the almighty patriarchy) is scant to legitimize the thoughts and contributions of women through any official means, storytelling has shaped villages and families. It has shaped economies and science and art. It happened organically and didn’t ask permission. The power of storytelling has fueled womanhood and, therefore, all of human kind before there was ever legislation or a 24-hour news cycle to tell anyone otherwise. 

I’ve been thinking about our mission at GIRLWITHABOOK and how we fit into this big, messy puzzle. We aren’t in the business of political advocacy or capacity building. We are in the business of storytelling. The business of giving girls the opportunity to tell their own stories. The business of harnessing stories as a tool for positive change. When looking for people to interview we have one important credential we look for- being a girl. That one credential speaks volumes. What a shame it would be for me to feel that my own credentials have been lowered based on a pesky political climate. Or that the stories of women around the world have been diminished by current chaos. The theme for International Women’s Day 2017 is Be Bold for Change. Women are bold every day. We tell stories. We learn from experience. We encourage others to learn from our experiences through our stories. I’m here to elevate the stories of others. This one is my own. It might feel like recent events have tried to make existence as difficult as possible for most, but women with stories to tell haven’t been stopped thus far. And they certainly won’t stop now.  


Looking at Herself: An Interview with Outgoing GIRLWITHABOOK Intern, Rosie Vita

By GIRLWITHABOOK Co-Founders Olivia Curl and Lena Shareef

For this installment of Looking at US GIRLWITHABOOK co-founders Olivia Curl and Lena Shareef sat down with GIRLWITHABOOK's summer intern and creator of Looking at US, Rosie Vita. A rising senior at The College of William and Mary in Virginia, Rosie is a French and Francophone Studies major, who is active on campus in her sorority and faith group. We are both sad to see Rosie leave the GIRLWITHABOOK team as she takes on her final year of college, and excited to see where life takes her next! 

OC: Tell us your name, your age, and where you’re from.

RV: Rosie Vita, 21, from Alexandria, Virginia.

OC: Can you tell us about your background, your family?

RV: My mom is English, moved here in her 20s because of a previous marriage, and has lived here on and off before she met my dad. Then she met my dad and decided to stay here. My dad is from Pittsburgh, and moved to the DC area because of his job. My dad’s family is very conservative. I love my family; I’m very close to my grandparents, despite not sharing the same viewpoints as them. I’ve never seen that [political views] as a thing to get between us. It’s so trivial in a lot of ways—we’re family. My dad is conservative, but having me as a daughter, being very feminist from a young age, he kind of can’t be anything but a feminist. I love that he is conservative, because it has shaped my ability to question beliefs, and my own beliefs. Growing up I would always say, “Oh yeah, I’m a Republican, just like my dad.” In 8th grade Civics we had to take a quiz—it was the year of Obama’s first election—and I remember having to take this quiz in class that questioned us on our views of specific issues and then based on our answers told us what party we align with. And my results said that I was a Democrat. But I was like, “But I’m a Republican!” Clearly, I really had no concept of what a Republican actually fully was.

He [my dad] comes from a very Catholic family, Italian family. He left the faith as soon as he graduated high school and moved out. I’m not Catholic, but [my extended family] all are. My mom grew up in Northern England, in Leeds, which is in Yorkshire. She grew up very blue-collar. She was raised by a single mom who had three kids in the city, in England post-WWII. The late 1950s and 60s, my mom’s childhood, were rough. They were still on rations when my mom was a little kid. It’s hard to believe.

LS: I feel like we forget how WWII wasn’t that long ago.

RV: Yeah, and I also think that in America we don’t see the impact as much as places that were really hit by it, especially Britain. It just messed things up so much.

So yes, my mom has two brothers. My mom was raised in a family, ironically full of very strong women, but strong women who [disliked] other women. It’s really interesting when my mom is with her other female cousins, because they all had the same childhood, where their mother didn’t like them because they were girls. Even though they were such strong women themselves, they blatantly valued the boys way more. Despite that, my mom has done way more with her life than either of her brothers. She went to nursing school, got a college degree, left England, is now very comfortably middle class. I am very proud of my mom. She is the definition of a strong woman to me. She’s got the British hardiness. I look up to her a lot, and my dad. I’m very close with both of them.

I grew up in a Christian household, because my mom is religious and my dad came back to the faith because of her. I grew up in a local church and spent a lot of time there. My church is very special; it’s very progressive, which is something I didn’t realize that other churches weren’t like. I didn’t get until high school, even college, that churches repress people. I thought that was a thing of history. Then I met oppressive Christians and churches, and realized they do exist. That just wasn’t my experience growing up. I was very lucky. I had great role models there. It continues to be something very important in my life.

Growing up in northern Virginia, outside of DC, I grew up expecting every kid to have a political opinion by the age of eight. College was so enlightening for me, because I realized that people aren’t always as aware or care that much. When you live around here, you’re surrounded by it all the time. Everyone’s parents work for the government, everyone is involved in that in some way, and have very strong beliefs. I was aware that Catholics didn’t support gay marriage, but I didn’t realize that many other churches didn’t support it either. I didn’t realize that being a feminist was often considered a bad thing until college. I was calling myself a feminist from the earliest time I knew the word, like early elementary school. I had never associated it with being a negative, because I had never experienced that until college. Every history project I did in late elementary school through middle school was on a different suffragette. Every single one! I was very unaware of life outside of NoVa (Northern Virginia). Then I met friends in college, from Virginia Beach, which is a big city, but also very military. But [my friends] told me that they had to be, like, “closet feminists” in high school, that they couldn’t outwardly express it without being bullied or teased. Even with my Republican family, I would talk about feminism around them, and they would only be very supportive. I was very lucky, and everyone was always very supportive of my beliefs. That’s something my dad and I really share: sometimes I get a little aggressive and shout him down, but usually we’re able to have great conversations…I never felt patronized by my parents, and I always felt very supported and that I had valid beliefs, even as a little girl. Now I feel very comfortable expressing what I think about things. I don’t worry about a guy I’m interested in “finding out” that I’m a feminist. Find out? He should assume! I didn’t really realize that kind of privilege until college, when I met people who hadn’t experienced that and I realized how lucky I was. There’s the obvious privilege of being white, and growing up in a wealthy area. That’s an obvious privilege that you can realize just from driving through different neighborhoods. And I went to a very diverse high school, and even though I came from the wealthy zip code, many of the other kids were not. I was aware of things like that. But I wasn’t aware of how lucky and privileged I was to be able to express myself and express my opinions and not be shamed for them. I didn’t realize that still happened in America, in communities similar to mine. I didn’t realize it happened to other 18-year-old white girls from Christian households. Very ignorant, but ignorance is bliss.

LS: What are you studying in college?

RV: I’m majoring in French & Francophone Studies, and minoring in marketing.

LS: What do you want to be when you grow up?

RV: I don’t know. Well, I do know, but not really, you know?

LS: Yep.

RV: I’ve always seen myself as being successful. When I was a little kid, I was just like, “I want to make a lot of money.” And my parents would be like, “What about what makes you happy?” And I’d be like “Money makes me happy!” I love money. I did an unpaid internship for you guys—shows how much I love the cause, because I love money!

I’m very much like my dad in that we make a lot of our life decisions based on financial security. When I was in early high school I said I wanted to be a lawyer, and my dad said that people weren’t getting jobs right out of law school, so I was like “scratch that!”

That’s why I decided to go into business. I knew in high school that business was a good route to go down, and that I could get a job doing it. Then I learned about marketing, and it sounded like something I could do. And as I learned more about it and actually started studying it, I found that I really enjoy it.

But I don’t really know. Through my classes I do really enjoy business and making decisions based on fact and data. Even though I’m not great at compiling the data, but using it to make decisions. And with marketing there’s still a creative side to it. But it’s the analytics, and what can we do to increase engagement, or reach this audience. And just the way you engage those audiences I find really interesting. So I think I want to do something within that. I don’t know what, exactly. Probably whatever I get hired doing—beggars can’t be choosers.

I want to be successful, I want to be happy, I want to live in a big city. That’s more of what I can say that I want. I know geographically where I want to be—I want to be in New York or Boston. And I know I want a 9-5 job, and I want to do something where I have creative [input], get to make decisions, and work with people. Beyond that I don’t really know.

LS: If money weren’t a factor, would you still want to do that? Like if you were a billionaire?

RV: I would not work, and I would spend my time being a travel blogger and traveling the world. I’ve actually planned this out, in case I ever do become a billionaire. I will have a penthouse or a house or something in every major European city, and just spend my time going between them. But also have a country home, and a beachside home, and a villa in Tuscany. I mean, c’mon. Maybe own a vineyard. But also have a cheese shop right next door. And bakers just making baguettes constantly.

LS: After college, do you have plans for further education?

RV: Next fall, hopefully, so long as I get in, I’ll be in a program to teach English in France for eight months. It’s mainly an excuse to live and be immersed in the language for longer, because…I’ve always wanted to be bilingual. That’s just always been something I’ve wanted. That has nothing to do with money! People are like, “What’s your passion?” And I would say “Becoming bilingual.” That’s why I’m a French major. I like learning about the cultures and stuff, but I love going to class everyday and just speaking French. That is just so fun. And studying abroad was the best experience of my life. Once I was there and found out about this opportunity [to teach] I was like, sign me up! I’m ready! I’m really excited for that. Next summer, I’ll probably try to find another internship in marketing to get more experience, and then go to France. Then, I don’t know. I have until April 2018 figured out, and then beyond that, who knows? Hopefully get hired by someone, hopefully move to a big city, and hopefully be happy and healthy.

OC: Is education important to you, and if so, why?

RV: Yeah, it’s important to me. I think that education has been where I’ve shined. That’s what I’m good [at]. Never a star athlete, although I did sports all growing up, not the most musically inclined even though I did band. I was the kid that was reading very early on in kindergarten, and from there that’s what I’ve been good at. College has been really good for knocking me down a peg, being surrounded by lots of other really smart kids. You’re not as smart as you think you are. That’s been really good, because when you excel…growing up, you think you can do anything. And yes you can, kind of, but it’s also good to realize you’re not as good as you think you are.

LS: It’s good to know you’re not superior to anyone else.

RV: Yes, which I think sometimes I definitely thought, because I was smart, and people told me I was smart. Also, I love learning. I love learning French, and reading, and I love having discussions. Class is a really great facilitator for that, because I love talking about some book I read in French, that really has no meaning outside of that classroom, yet I love spending an hour and a half talking about it. I love school for that, and getting to explore different ideas and viewpoints.

But also, I definitely have senioritis already, which is bad because [senior year] hasn’t even started yet, but I definitely feel ready to move on. I’m ready to go out in the workforce—I feel ready for that. Another year for school and the endless studying—I’m getting ready for that part to end. Never stop learning, you’re a lifelong learner, but definitely ready for that to end. Grad school is not something I really see in my future—unless someone else pays for it. If someone wants to send me to an MBA program, that’s great. Of course I’m only 21, so who knows, but really no more right now.

OC: Do you think it’s going to be hard, even though you have senioritis, to transition out of getting so much of your positive feedback from school to not being in school?

RV: That’s a hard question, I don’t know! I think that there are other ways, and I’ve seen this just in jobs I’ve had, like this, that there are other ways that you can find validation through other work.

…School, especially college, is a very very selfish time. All of your goals center completely on you. I’m studying for this exam so I can do well on it so that I can get a good GPA, etc. etc. You’re not really serving anyone, at least in the moment. Obviously you’re working toward getting a good degree and going out to get a good job. But I’m at the point where I’m actually ready to get a job and use my degree to do something in the world. School is a great way to get there, and the validation is really nice, but also I’m tired of it all being about me, in a way. I want what I’m working towards to be helping other people. That’s why I really enjoyed [this internship], because doing social media stuff or writing a blog post was not because I’m going to get a good grade on it, it’s because it’s actually serving a purpose, and I really like that, and I’m excited for it to come next year. To be working toward a more communal goal, because school isn’t that. It’s all about you, and you’re doing it completely for yourself. I mean, my parents are proud of me, and I’m sure they get joy when I get a good grade, but it’s a very selfish validation. I think I might even get more validation from working, because it’s a more communal thing, and I really like that.

LS: What do you think is the most important thing a woman can do in her life?

RV: I think it’s the same as any person. It’s contributing to society.

There’s the basic thing: be happy. But I think it goes beyond that, to contributing good in the world. But I don’t think there’s one way to measure that. Maybe not actively contributing bad things in the world. “Good” is such an indefinable word, but being a good person, whatever that may mean. I don’t know, that’s a hard question to answer.

I don’t think it’s [only] being a mother, or [only] being a wife. There are so many people in the world, with so many paths, so how do you find what’s the most important thing they can contribute? I think it very much varies. I think the most important thing I can contribute is being a good person. And I may have a measurement of “good” that may not match up with what other peoples’ definition of “good” is. [I’m] trying to keep other people in mind when I do things. If more people did that, the world would be a better place.

OC: What are you most afraid of?

RV: Settling, for a lot of things. Settling for a job I don’t want, settling in a place I don’t want to live. I would say marriage, but that’s not really something I think about that much. So yeah, but…

LS: You’re afraid of getting married?

RV: I don’t know if I want to. So I don’t know if I want to add that in as something I’m afraid of because it’s not something I’m sure I want…It’s not something I actively want.

So settling, not taking risks. The idea of going to France actually does scare me in a lot of ways, and I don’t really know what to expect, and I’m putting off getting a job, which is what everyone else does after college. So putting that off for a year is scary, but I’m more afraid of the feeling I’d have if I didn’t do it, of regret. And being 80 years old and saying I wish I’d gone to France when I was 22. So I think that’s what I’m afraid of…looking back and thinking that I didn’t do what I wanted to do because I was afraid of doing it.

Also, I really hate spiders.

LS: What is the hardest part about being a girl?

RV: I think it depends on where you are. I don’t face the same challenges that a girl in Nepal faces, so it depends on where you are as a girl. I can speak more from my personal experiences.  I think the view of women as unable to achieve the same thing as men. That thought is so destructive, because it leads to the other things. It’s what keeps girls out of school, but it also is so destructive in the mind of a girl, that she is not worth more. It is the catalyst for everyone else, this thought or belief that women are just not equal. I think that’s the hardest thing. And I think it exhibits itself in many ways. It comes out in sexual harassment, sexual assault, and girls not speaking up in class, girls not going to school, or girls allowing themselves to be in abusive relationships. It manifests in many different ways, but I think that thought is very destructive, and is the hardest thing that women face.

OC: I’d like to know Rosie’s thoughts on gender roles.

LS: Yeah, what are your thoughts on gender roles?

RV: I believe to my core that men and women are equal, and I think that men and women should be able to express themselves however they want to. But I don’t like some of the rhetoric I’ve seen, mainly about women, that when a woman is more feminine, or maybe does play into traditional gender roles, is looked down on. That really bothers me, especially as a girl who is a self-identified girly-girl. I’ve had people be like, “How can you wear makeup and still be a feminist?” Because I like it? I went through a period of my life where I rejected things I like because, “I’m a feminist, I can’t like those things!” I made myself be a tomboy for so long in elementary school, in middle school, really forced it, because I thought this is what I have to be [in order] to be a successful woman. I have to reject the color pink, and I have to reject wanting to make myself look nice, in the way I like to look nice. It’s just another way of women tearing down other women, because it’s always women who are poking holes in it! Men don’t give a crap, usually. It’s just women tearing down other women. So what? I have a very feminine name, which I love; I like very stereotypically feminine things. But I still firmly believe in equality. I don’t like the assumption, because I think it comes from the assumption, that femininity is weak. And again, like I said, it’s that underlying thought that women are not equal to men. But when I see feminists use that, I think you’re feeding into the very problem you’re trying to solve. I have major amounts of respect for stay-at-home moms. Do I ever want to be one? No! Do I even want to be a mom? I honestly can’t say right now. But tearing someone down because of the choices she makes is ridiculous and so stupid. And immature and naïve. When I see even my friends doing things like that, it just makes me really upset. Just because I do like some frivolous things doesn’t mean I’m a frivolous person.

OC: Or that you’re not worthy of respect.

RV: I remember it really getting to me in 6th grade. I would wear basketball shorts and sneakers; whatever, I wore what I wore. But a girl asked me why I dressed like a boy. I was like, “I can’t win!” If I dress in girly clothes, then I’m not smart and all of these assumptions, but if I dress more like a tomboy, then I’m also being judged. That was kind of the turning point, where I was like, “Screw it, I’m just going to do what I want to do.”

Rosie, thank you for your incredible dedication and contributions to the GIRLWITHABOOK team this summer! Wishing you the best of luck in all your future endeavors

~ Olivia, Lena, and Jennifer

Thanks for all your hard work, Rosie!

Thanks for all your hard work, Rosie!

GIRLWITHABOOK Co-Founders: An Interview with Olivia Curl and Lena Shareef

By GIRLWITHABOOK Intern, Rosie Vita

This week’s interview is with Olivia Curl and Lena Shareef, the co-founders of GIRLWITHABOOK Movement. Both are graduates of American University in Washington, DC, and Lena a graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. We sat down to discuss their upbringings, view on gender roles and feminism, and the role education has played in their lives and in the lives of girls across the United States.

RV: What is your family's background? What kind of environment (religious, cultural, geographic location, etc.) were you raised in?

OC: I grew up in Eugene, Oregon. My mom’s side of the family is from Portugal from the Azores Islands, so that side is very much the culture of Catholic Portuguese immigrants. My grandma got married when she was 16 and immigrated to the US, raised two kids by herself, and I’m very proud of that. So very much of my life is My Big Fat Greek Wedding, in that regard. And then my dad’s side is very white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, military, conservative family. He’s a red head. So literally My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Except my mom would say with classier bridesmaid dresses.

I grew up in a conservative household. My parents have really grown and evolved in that regard, in terms of politics and values since my brother and I were little which is encouraging because I think my brother and I have driven that a lot. But I grew up in a really liberal town so that helped maintain some balance. But it also made me really good at arguing, because I would stand up for what my parents believed in. It made me a better arguer and it made me value challenging what I believe before making up my mind just to whatever the dominant discourse is. Because even though I’m super liberal, hard-core leftie now, I value that I’m able to value other people’s perspectives and see the genuine nuggets of where they’re coming from.

LS: I was born in Cincinnati, Ohio. But when I was a year old, we moved to Karachi, Pakistan. My dad was working for Proctor & Gamble, and it’s very similar to being an army brat because you get moved around a lot. Karachi is where my first memories are—we lived there for five and a half years. Then when I was seven we moved to Kiev, Ukraine. We lived there for two years and that was a really fun time. From there we moved to Michigan. I was nine years old and that was the first time where I felt very different. We lived in suburb outside of Detroit, which was very white, Jewish, and there weren’t that many people of color. We lived there for six years. Middle school sucked. It was constant bullying. I still to this day don’t understand why. I think it was maybe because I was the new kid, I was different, and was best friends with a girl who was already an outcast. The bullying that you see in movies—that is exactly what I went through.

Then when I was 15 we moved back to Cincinnati, Ohio. I realized how segregated things were there. I remember one day after school was over I needed a ride home. I asked a friend of mine, and I knew she lived fairly close by. So I told her the route I usually took, and she was like, “I don’t like going through that area.” And I realized it was because it was a mainly black area.

One time we went to Skyline Chili, and I went with my white friend. We walked in and a hush fell over the place, and everyone turned and looked at me. I was the only person of color there. And I never ever wanted to go back. It was so weird. And now I will forever associate Skyline Chili, no matter how delicious it is, with that. And this was 2006/2007.

My family is Pakistani, and we’re Muslim. I have an older brother. Religion plays a big role in my life. My first memories are of growing up in a Muslim-majority country, in Pakistan. But I didn’t ever really think of my religious identity until I was in Ukraine and Michigan. You kind of grow up and you think everyone’s Muslim! In Pakistan we used to have this Imam come to our house every Friday and teach my brother and me how to read the Quran, which I hated. It was always some old dude who obviously couldn’t relate to a 5-year-old girl. He was a very nice man, I was just a brat.

And then in Ukraine my mom would, every week, have my brother and me sit down with her and she wanted to make sure that we could still read the Quran. And then in Michigan, I do remember my parents put us in a Sunday school, which sucked, because at that time it was when people were trying to build the structure of a Muslim Sunday School. It was random volunteers, and not enjoyable for me. I ended up not making any friends in Sunday school. I couldn’t relate to anyone.

As I got older, it was very much my mom who was the religious practicing one in my family. It was always important for my mom, and I think I would do it as sort of a favor to her. When I went to college in DC, that’s when I finally made other Muslim friends. I didn’t really have Muslim friends before college, other than my family. You know college; a lot of late night discussion, and you end up thinking about your identity so much. That’s when it became more of a choice, and this is what I’m doing for me.

RV: What is your view of gender roles? What has impacted or molded this view?

LS: When do you think you became a feminist?

OC: Oh, I became a feminist after we started GIRLWITHABOOK.

Evolution is important, right? I was raised in my immediate, nuclear family with the values of traditional gender roles. My mom’s dad died when my mom was four and a half. So my grandma: poor, immigrant, youngest of 12 children, came to America, loses her husband, and has two kids. She busted her butt to get both kids through college and my uncle through law school. Education is a huge value in my family. My mom is college educated, she had a job, and she’s independent. Because my grandma didn’t have parents and they didn’t have parents, there’s this background of struggle. The ideal became a situation where the children have two parents and one of them can stay home. That was the dream. So my mom was able to achieve that, and we were very fortunate, and lucky that my parents were able to afford that. My dad owned a business; he was in the army and retired when I was two or three. I grew up with that being the gender role model.

I grew up always knowing that I wanted to be married, and that I wanted to be a mom. And I remember in college someone asked me, “Why do you want that?” And I said that I guess it starts with growing up, [I learned that] that’s what women do. Not in a bad way, in a very privileged way—it is, for me, such a privilege that I will be able to carry and contribute life to the world. But I grew up in such a liberal town, with very liberal almost second set of parents. I had all of these other inputs. So I felt fine with whatever other people chose to do, but this was for me. I went to college really struggling with what I believed faith-wise, and how that fit into what I want in terms of relationships and family. Being in a long-term committed partnership is very important to me.

I was trying to balance all of these things and see how they fit together. I remember I came home from my freshman year of college, and was driving with the woman who is like my second mom. I was of the opinion at that age that feminists were whiny and complained too much. I was annoyed by feminists and didn’t want to be one. I was raised with traditional gender roles as my model. But I also knew that I had it in me to do whatever I want, because I had parents and a grandma who were super gung-ho about education. I was always told I was smart, so I grew up thinking I could do whatever I wanted.

So we were driving and I expressed that, and Lisa, in her beautiful way she has about her, said “Yeah, it’s really important that people be able to choose what they want to do, and the problem is that historically, women have not had that choice. And that’s why people fought for it, in ways that maybe don’t suit you, but they fought so that you have the choice to do what you want.” And I remember what turn we were at on the highway, so every time I pass that turn I think of that moment.

There were a lot of different things happening in college. I was [studying abroad] in Jordan when Malala Yousafzai was shot, and we started GIRLWITHABOOK. Being in Jordan, I was under constant sexual harassment and just having a really crappy time. That’s when I was like, “Yep, I’m a feminist, because this sucks!” It was the cultural restrictions and expectations of how my body can be in public, and then with my work with GIRLWITHABOOK, it was constant discovery. It was a rapid turnaround from not really a feminist to definitely a feminist.

I will say that I’m really fortunate. Now my parents are divorced, and the traditional model has kind of crumbled, in that respect. But, I have a lot of other examples of different relationships that are much more equal, where both partners either work full or part time, and household responsibilities are divided. I don’t think there’s any one right way to do things, especially when it comes to family. It’s all about values, what you’re good at, what you strive for. I have a lot of respect for women who choose to be stay-at-home moms, and men who choose to be stay-at-home dads. If that’s the balance that works best for your family, do it, go for it. I don’t see it as the balance that’s going to work for me. And now that I also know that I’m gay—plot twist—a lot of these things happened at the same time: GIRLWITHABOOK, being a feminist, having really challenging experiences with very extreme gender expectations while I was studying abroad, and realizing that I was gay, and having that all happen in a 12-month period, and having my parents get divorced—there was a lot of stuff being tumbled up. I’m still getting back down and settling from that, but it’s cool because I get to pick how I settle. I still want a long-term relationship, and I still want marriage. I really value the idea of having another person where we have values and goals and commit to being in it for the long haul. And being able to raise radical, social justice aware children. Hopefully I’ll [screw] up, but in different ways from my parents. Each generation you [screw] up a little differently and a little bit better.

LS: Similar to Olivia, I also grew up thinking that I want to get married; I want to be a mom. I don’t think I ever necessarily felt that I wanted to be a stay-at-home mom, because even though my mom is a stay-at-home mom, my dad is very feminist, although I don’t know if he’d use that word to describe himself. There’s a big emphasis on education in my family, and he always wanted me to be financially independent. And my brother is very similar.

In terms of other gender roles, I don’t know, it’s so weird; there are certain gender roles that I would see for my family, and then everyone else. Especially growing up in the US. It’s the immigrant experience. Sometimes I would make excuses for my immigrant side, like this is just the way it is, but sometimes I would look at my friend’s moms and be like, “Why don’t you do that?” to my mom. Or even when I go back to Pakistan. A lot of that awareness came in high school or college.

Now I’m very aware and call it out. Saying “I am a feminist” and identifying as that probably came after we started GIRLWITHABOOK. I wasn’t a fan of the patriarchy, but I wasn’t a feminist. I think we both were just so horrified by the assassination attempt on Malala, and were so horrified that a grown man would climb on a school bus and shoot a 14-year-old girl in the head just for going to school.

OC: And that’s the most extreme example of patriarchy, right there. I think that people don’t realize that everything exists on a spectrum. There’s a spectrum of patriarchy, a spectrum of sexism, and a spectrum of feminism. With patriarchy and misogyny, it can range from benevolent sexism to shooting someone in the head. But understanding that if you’re going under the assumption that women should have their grocery bags carried for them, hypothetically, to shooting someone in the head, obviously you’re going to choose not shooting someone in the head and be fine with the groceries. [But] it’s the same underlying things that contribute to that. It’s that men are dominant, stronger, and superior, and women need to be protected not just from other men, but [also] from themselves. And women can’t be trusted with their own minds to make their own decisions about their own bodies and lives and trajectories.

I remember very clearly when we were in Nepal, we had just gone to a school, and we were driving back, and I just kind of said to the car at large, “I actually don’t care how much schooling someone gets.” I had this thing before the trip where I wanted everyone to go to college. But college is not for everyone, and that’s okay! You know, finishing high school is not going to be a reality for every girl, probably for the next 200 years. But I don’t actually care about that; all I care about is when I look at a girl, do you have the resources and the skills to make healthy decisions about your own life and your own trajectory? If you’re in a relationship, do you control yourself in it?

LS: I remember what you said in the car. You said something like: “I just want the girl to be happy, healthy, and have agency in her life.” And that stuck with me, too.

OC: We definitely think that going to school increases proliferation of those things. But that’s the nugget. Happy, healthy, and have agency. That’s all I care about. If you’re having kids, are you having kids because you want to? Giving birth: is it safe? If you’re married to a man, do you have a say in household spending? Does he treat you respectfully? Do your kids grow up seeing him treat you respectfully and expect that for themselves?

RV: What are you interested in?

LS: My big thing right now is about media representation. How people are portrayed, whether it’s on TV, in movies, comic books. Definitely visual representation. I get really bummed out when there’s an announcement about a new movie on the Great Wall of China starring Matt Damon. And intersectionality. I’m very pro-intersectionality.

OC: Hard core.

LS: I think that’s another reason why I really didn’t identify with feminism before, because it was a white lady thing. I didn’t see myself in it. And I don’t even have an academic understanding of feminism. I just take it at its very base: feminism is equality of the sexes. Feminism to me means just having that choice, whether you want to be a stay-at-home mom or have a career in an office.

I remember having conversations with my friend in grad school, and telling her that I’m a feminist. And she was like, “but you dress so modestly.” I can be a feminist and still dress modestly.

OC: That’s the point.

LS: This is why we need it! So going back to media representation, I think it matters. I think back to the children’s books I read, and I was really drawn to books about black kids, and slavery, because those kids looked somewhat more similarly to me. When you have movies that whitewash history, being set in ancient Egypt with white actors, that’s problematic. And then there have been moments now, when I’m in my mid-20s, where I’ve been made to feel less American than other people.

People who look like me have been in the US for generations. But just because my parents moved here, and I’m first generation, I’m sometimes made to feel like less of an American.

OC: I remember you telling me how important Bend it Like Beckham was for you.

LS: Oh, yeah! I love that movie! That movie came out when I was 14 or 15. It was a big event, even in my family. We all went out to the movie theater to see it. I don’t think it even hit me at that point. It was the first time I had seen a South Asian woman on a big screen, who wasn’t just a side character in the background. That had a huge impact on me.

It’s so scary when kids see people who look like them only playing villains. And that’s exactly what happened with brown people. They’re constantly playing villains.

OC: In the movie, originally, Jess and Jules are in love. In the original script, they fall in love. But when they brought it to production and distribution they were like, “It’s already about women who play soccer and one of them is brown, and immigrant, and a religious minority, so it’s already a niche film. They’re going to have to fall in love with their coach and that’s what they’re going to fight about.” So they changed it. But I love that it was originally a gay movie.

I majored in International Studies, and minored in Arabic. That’s really common at American University. End of junior year, beginning of senior year I began getting really into maternal reproductive health, and how it relates to women’s education and development. That’s totally my thing now. I thought I was going to work in government, in security and intelligence. I was at a memorial service beginning of my senior year. I read something, and a woman asked me if I was an English major. Then someone asked me what I was studying. And I said I was studying international relations and would probably end up working for the government, but what I really wanted to do was deliver babies. So maybe when I’m 50 or something I’ll go back to school and be a midwife. And I said it out loud, and I was like, “You know that’s what you want to do, why don’t you just do that now?” So I went back and forth for several years on being a mid-wife or an OB/GYN, and when we were in Nepal I settled on being a doctor.

The year after I graduated I worked at Planned Parenthood in Oregon. It was a medical position, and was all on the job training, so you really get to see community in sexual and reproductive health care up close. For me, from all of our work around gender equality and education with GIRLWITHABOOK, I draw very close linkages to maternal and reproductive health and justice. I think there’s the notion of being pro-choice, which is where the narrative has been for a really long time, and I really enjoy the narrative ‘Reproductive Justice.’ And similarly to feminism, it’s not just about choice; it’s also about having economic and social agency too. It’s not just to have the dream, or being able to see yourself doing the dream, it’s about having the resources to make that happen and make those choices reality for yourself.

RV: What do you feel are society’s expectations of you? Do they match your own?

OC: This is the question you were most afraid of.

LS: Yeah. I hate societal expectations.

OC: They’re the worst!

LS: Society, for me, is Pakistani people. That’s where I feel the most pressure. I don’t feel random pressure from Joe Shmoe on the street—

OC: --Joe the Plumber.

LS: Currently, a lot of expectations are just like, “Okay, get married.” It’s really weighing me down a lot, actually. I feel all of this pressure, everyone around me is getting married, all of my cousins, other Pakistani-American family members my age are getting married. That’s just the constant thing—it’s marriage. And that goes back to gender roles. There are a lot of times where I’m having conversations with people at weddings, with people my parents’ age or older, and they’re like, “That’s nice,” when [I mention that] I went to grad school at Columbia, but it’s almost like it doesn’t really count until I’m married. It’s so weird. You’ll even see South Asian parents wanting doctors for their sons, but not necessarily use it. That’s a huge problem in Pakistan right now, is that in medical schools there, the majority of students are women, and they don’t do anything with [their degree].

OC: It’s something like over 75% of the students are female.

LS: And then they just get married, and then they don’t actually practice.

OC: And less than 10% of practicing physicians in Pakistan are women.

LS: It’s absurd! It’s the dumbest thing. You’re just taking up spots from people who could actually become doctors and do something with their degree.

OC: And the answer is not to not have women go to medical school, it’s make it so women can go to medical school and work as doctors. And be married, go for it!

RV: Do you want to get married?

LS: I do want to get married! But I’m so afraid that I’m going to settle for someone at some point. Just to get married and get it out of the way. There are some days where I really go crazy about it, and I’m like, next guy I see, let’s do it. It sounds really stupid, and it’s dangerous, because I know in the back of my mind it would make me very unhappy. I’ve also heard of other friends, who have gotten divorces after just a year or two, and they’re also Pakistani or South Asian, and some of them totally are succumbing to the pressure. It sucks.

OC: How preposterous is it that our accomplishments don’t matter or are insignificant until they’re validated by being legally attached to another person. That’s absurd. I feel like heterosexual long-term relationships concluding relatively soon in marriage is the baseline. You can do whatever you want on top of that, have a really wonderful Ivy League degree in journalism, make a documentary series, and have started your own nonprofit, but it’s infantilized. It’s like, oh, that’s nice. But you have to have the baseline of your heterosexual marriage for that to count.

OC: So I’m younger, I’m 24, so I feel like there are fewer expectations. I’m still in the post-college period of permissiveness where people don’t care that much, because I am still really young. I feel so much more pressure from myself at this point than I do from society. I’ve always been a high achiever, so it’s harder now with college done to realign what’s accessible in terms of being accomplished. I’m trying to transition my happiness from getting good grades and whatnot to being a person. I’m working on it.

But I think there’s definitely kind of the expectation, from my grandma and that root level. She really wants me to be a doctor. But she was saying to me last year, “Do you think you’ll work after you have kids?” And I was like, well yes, absolutely. And she was so shocked. This woman, who had a 6th/7th grade education and dreamed of going to college, and then, wants that for me so badly and I’ve been able to do it. And yet the end goal is still that I’m married with a husband having kids, and I stay home with the kids. But where is the disconnect? Because I’m hopefully going to have a medical degree and be able to contribute to society in that way. It’s hard for me to get the disconnect. But I understand that in her mind, [staying home with the kids] is the ultimate privilege.

RV: Lena, you went to grad school, and Olivia, you went to college and are planning on medical school. Why is higher education important to you? What has made you realize that it’s the next step or was the next step for you?

OC: There was no realizing it, in my family, it was just expected. There was no if you go to college, it was always when, and really where do you want to go to college. That’s super privileged, and I completely acknowledge that. It was never a question, ever. I didn’t even consider a gap year, although I wish I had, because I learned so much about myself when I studied abroad in college, and it changed what I was interested in and what I thought my goals were, and it would have been really helpful to have some of those goal realizations earlier on. I don’t think that it is the end-all be-all for everybody; especially in the US we can learn from other cultures that value technical and vocational education as much as academic and higher education. I think that we’re hugely missing that in our system. For me, college was definitely the right choice and really important to me to have that space to transition into being an adult. It was a safe environment to test out who you want to be as an adult, both in and out of the classroom—I think most of college happens out of the classroom in terms of learning about yourself.

It was definitely the right thing for me. I love school, I love learning, and I miss it.

LS: For me, even grad school was a given. My dad even wanted me to go to grad school right out of college. I think so many people, especially in the South Asian community, see it as though you’re running a marathon. Like do this, it’ll be good to have this, get this degree too! And because so many South Asian kids go to medical school, so I think that’s probably where my dad was getting that from. It was almost like the whole experience of college was like your baseline education that you need to get, and grad school is what you specialize in and build a career on. The summer before my senior in college I was asking people I worked with [at my internship] and was getting coffee with someone who worked there. And she was so adamant about me not going to grad school right after college. I’m glad I didn’t, because at that time when I was a senior in college—I majored in film and media studies and minored in international studies—and at that time I was thinking maybe I’d get a grad school degree in International Relations. I don’t even know why, that sounds so boring to me now. I took two years in between, and decided that I wanted to do journalism.

I think, similarly to Olivia that [college] is not necessarily for everyone. And especially now, having come back from the trip, for girls, here in the US and the Western world, it is going to be important in helping you become more independent and financially independent. But it may not necessarily be the case in developing countries. If she’s able to get a pretty good job with a high school education, then it’s fine. She can be happy, healthy, and have agency.

RV: What do you think of girls’ education in America? What do you think of education in America? What can we as a society do to improve?

OC: In our education system, so much depends on where you live. So for girls who are a minority, living in a low-income area and don’t have access to a quality public school, your chances are slashed. The likely of teen pregnancy shoots up as well as all these other social issues. And if we had strong schools available for all, I think it would largely be addressed.

LS: I guess it goes beyond that. In the US it’s actually educational institutions. There’s so much sexual assault on campuses. And if that, God forbid, happens to a girl, it can ruin her life, because people aren’t taking her seriously. The right school officials aren’t taking her seriously and punishing the guy who did it.

In America, girls can definitely do and be whatever [they] want. You do technically, under the law, have that right. In terms of society and culture, and what people expect of you, not so much. People would hear that and [object].

At the same time, though, I don’t want to paint some dire picture in the US. And from all our travel, I feel so grateful for being an American. There are a lot of amazing things that we get, and the way that we’re treated. And it has gotten better. Things are getting better. And these conversations that we’re having are good; they’re healthy, it’s a sign of good things happening.

OC: I think there is still a disparity of values where these conversations are happening. We’re sitting in a room right now with three college-educated women. I have a friend that grew up expecting to be a stay at home mom, and thought that the only occupations available to her were teacher or nurse. That’s still really dominant in a lot of areas. And I think addressing the disparity of expectation regionally is important to keep in mind. It absolutely has gotten better relatively, and with global privilege. But still so much depends on how much money you have and where you’re born. Then you factor skin tone into that.

What can we as a society do?

LS: Educate girls.

OC: Educate girls and include boys. Don’t just teach feminism to girls; teach it to boys as well.

LS: Feminism is not just for women—it’s for everybody. 

Olivia (left) and Lena (right) trying on hats in Osh, Kyrgyzstan.  Photo taken by Jennifer Ciochon, GIRLWITHABOOK Board Member

Olivia (left) and Lena (right) trying on hats in Osh, Kyrgyzstan.

Photo taken by Jennifer Ciochon, GIRLWITHABOOK Board Member

The Gap Year: Luxury or Education?

By GIRLWITHABOOK Intern, Rosie Vita

The gap year is once again making headlines, this time thanks to Malia Obama announcing her plans to take a year off before entering her freshman year at Harvard University. While the practice of taking a year off in between graduating high school and entering university has been a common practice in many European countries for decades, it has only recently started to become more popular in the United States. As the industry of private companies hosting gap years grows in the United States, the questions arise: is the gap year beneficial? And are all gap years created equal?

I first heard of the gap year when I was in elementary school, and my English god-sister took a year off in between finishing high school and beginning university to tour Europe with some friends. She worked for months to save up for the trip, and planned meticulously to travel as far and as cheaply as possible. For her and her friends, the gap year was commonplace. According to a study by the United Kingdom’s Department for Education, 11% of students entering British universities in 2010 were 19 years old, showing that they had deferred for a year—presumably taking a gap year, and the number is assumed to be much lower in the United States.

The concept of the gap year is so new in the US that until recently, little research had been done on its potential benefits or detriments. With the popularity of the gap year growing, however, there is new incentive for private companies seeking a profit to turn out data supporting it. A quick Google search yields many companies offering opportunities to travel the globe or volunteer in developing countries, all for a high price. Critics of the gap year say it’s a luxury belonging only to children of wealthy parents to take a year of indulgence. And according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, students who wait to attend college are at a much higher risk of never completing a postsecondary degree, especially if they are a racial minority or come from a lower socio-economic background.

Proponents of the gap year, while not necessarily having years of data and studies on their side, point out other potential benefits of a delayed university start date. One argument in support states that it gives students a break from academic life to pursue other interests, whether that be traveling, volunteering, or pursuing professional experience. They claim those students then enter university with a better understanding of the world, themselves, and what they want to study and do with their degree. Other supporters claim, especially when the gap year involves an international component, that the students develop more cultural awareness and awareness of their own privilege as Americans. This way of thinking is growing in popularity, and schools like Harvard are encouraging their incoming freshmen classes to take a gap year—just like Malia Obama.

I did not take a gap year, and didn’t even consider taking one. Not only was I eager to head off to college, but my parents could not afford to send me travelling on their dime, and I wasn’t interested in working behind a desk in lieu of attending university. Also, in my case, I knew my college career would involve a semester abroad, so a year travelling before college didn’t seem as necessary for the development of my cultural awareness. I do see the benefit of the gap year, however, provided that it is spent as an educational or professional supplement, not a year of luxury and partying. As more and more American universities begin to support the gap year, more funding and financial support is being offered to allow students of all backgrounds to defer for a year. The gap year could end up revolutionizing the way we see higher education in this country—and what do we Americans like more than a revolution?

The Graduate Level: An Interview with Two PhD Economists

By GIRLWITHABOOK Intern, Rosie Vita

This week’s interview is with Beth Freeborn and Liz Callison, two PhD Economists at the Federal Trade Commission. The FTC is an independent agency of the United States government that works to promote consumer protection and maintain competition in the marketplace. Beth and Liz work within the Bureau of Economics, which supports the Bureau of Consumer Protection and the Bureau of Competition by providing expert economic knowledge. Both have had careers in academia before their time at the FTC. We sat down to discuss their experiences pursuing PhDs, being women in the male-dominated economics field, and the challenges they’ve faced along the way.

RV: What are your educational and professional backgrounds?

BF: I went to undergraduate at the University of Virginia and then I stayed right away and went to UVA for my PhD. I taught for seven years at the College of William & Mary and have been at the FTC since 2011.

LC: I went to Wellesley College; I was actually a biology major. Then I took a year and completely converted to economics. I worked at the Brookings Institute as a research assistant and then I went to University of Pennsylvania for my PhD in economics. After that I taught for a couple of years at the University of Colorado Business School, and then came here, to the FTC.

RV: How did you all decide that you wanted to go into economics?

BF: I actually took economics in high school, and I liked it, but it wasn’t what I thought I wanted to do. So when I got to college, I tried a bunch of other classes, but I kept doing economics, and then the week before I had to declare my major I decided to stick with economics. And then once I started getting into it I really enjoyed it. I like the math part of it and I liked being a student, so that’s why I stayed on through grad school. I liked the idea of being a professor, that’s an appealing profession.

RV: Why?

BF: I like solving problems, and I like finding out ways of getting someone to understand something. I started doing some tutoring, I’d study with friends; I got a lot of utility out of coming up with new ways…that’s something I liked about being a professor, was when a student struggled, but I could lift the conversation until they could understand it.

LC: I started out as a biology major, and was a biology major. I took my first economics class my junior year of college. I liked it; I liked micro not macro. I took another course in my senior year. I was doing an honors thesis in biology and I had done a fellowship in a lab for the summer so I was way deep into my studies of bio. Probably the winter of my senior year I decided that I had started getting narrower and narrower, and although it turns out this isn’t really true, at least not any more, but once you commit to an organism in biology you’re locked in. I didn’t like the concept that I was going to be stuck forever doing research on a narrow thing, whereas economics used the same analytical thought processes as the sciences, but the world was my oyster in terms of topics, and once you know micro economics you can do labor, and a much broader swatch which was very appealing to me. So I dropped my honors thesis because I had to take more economics in my second semester. When I went to my job I had a mentor pushing me pretty hard in the economics direction. I too liked the teaching part, but I didn’t like the departmental politics.

I did a leave of absence here [FTC] after two years teaching. I was pretty miserable [teaching]; I was an agent of change in my department; and a female agent of change, and an economist in a finance department. With all those things combined it was pretty miserable. I took a year of absence here, and stayed!

RV: At what point did you realize you wanted to pursue a doctorate?

LC: It was the year after college, and I knew I wanted to do more, and had a lot of people really pushing in that direction. I don’t think at the time I really quite realized what a big commitment it was. I knew I had to go back for more school no matter what I did, not that there weren’t things I could do, but the kind of things I wanted to do all required advanced degrees. It was pretty clear to me that I needed to go back to school one way or the other.

BF: For me it happened after I took my statistics class, which was taught by a graduate student at UVA. I remember talking to him after class one day, and saying, “I really like this and I want to do what you’re doing,” and he said, “Well, how much math have you taken?” I hadn’t taken very much because I’d come in with credits from high school, and he said I needed to take as much math as possible. That was the fall of my junior year, so that spring and my senior year I worked toward getting a math minor, to make me more attractive to graduate schools.

I wouldn’t say I knew exactly what I was getting into, because I had no research experience as an undergraduate. The first couple of years of graduate school were tests and reading and papers. I could do all of that. And then we got to the research, and I didn’t know how to do all of that. I had to learn that all over. At the time, I had friends who were econ majors and were coming out [of undergrad] and making good money doing interesting work. So I always felt that yes, it was a commitment and that the end goal was that I wanted to be a professor, but I always knew that I had outside opportunities. It’s a big commitment, but with every step you make on an econ PhD, you’re also giving yourself other opportunities. People with Masters have job offers. I always felt secure about the path that I was on.

RV: Did you face any major setbacks in pursuit of your higher education?

BF: I had a pretty major one. I really struggled with finding a topic for my dissertation. At UVA, by the end of your fall semester fourth year of graduate school you need to have proposed a dissertation topic. It was August, and I’d worked on several things but they’d all fallen apart for one reason or another. So I was pretty desperate, and I was ready to leave. But one of my professors called me into his office and really pushed me. I credit him with getting me back on track. I didn’t even tell him that I was thinking about leaving; I think somebody else told him. He helped me a lot and connected me with my advisors.

LC: Remember how Beth mentioned math? Well I went to an alternative high school, and I took calculus, but it was the theory of calculus from the Greeks. We never learned how to take tests, because we didn’t have tests! And so I went [to college] and I’d already taken calculus, so my first semester they put me in Calculus II or III, which is all fine and good; I understood the theory of the calculus, but I had no practical experience. We didn’t do that at my high school. I didn’t do so well in it. And then as a biology major, I didn’t have to do a lot of it.

The year I was at Brookings I went back and took Calculus I and II at George Washington [University], but then I started at Penn and it was at the start of the heavy math period. I’d never had matrix algebra; I’d never had diddly in math. I really struggled. There are several people who are amazed I passed my prelims; they were betting against me. At the time they failed a good percent of their students at the end of the first year in the preliminaries, and I was definitely slated for that route. I spent all of my first year basically learning the math without much economics. And I didn’t have much economics in undergrad, so I spent some time after that, when I was doing my research for my dissertation, having to integrate two different things that I really didn’t know all that well. It turned out fine, but that was hard.

RV: Economics is a male-dominated field. What has been your experience as women both in the educational field and in the professional field of economics?

BF: My experience has been pretty positive. I started at William & Mary which has a relatively high female economics professor ratio. Then, coming here, our managers are women. I am aware that it is a male-dominated field, but it hasn’t been an issue for me personally.

LC: For me, it hasn’t been an issue, but it’s been more brought out. When I was a graduate student there were only four women in my first year, and only two of us passed the prelims. It was very narrow. It was a time when there were some sleazy professors at Penn who aren’t there anymore, and it was tough. When you go out on the job market, before that you go to a seminar [with a panel of professors]. I learned while there that some of the professors, not my professors, but some were there with the goal to make me cry. And they didn’t. But it was horrible, and my major professors had to kind of whack them around a little bit. It was not very pleasant.

I come from a family of boys, so I was more used to this. But then when I went to Colorado, I was in the finance department, I was an economist, I wasn’t so sure they liked that, I was representing research, and I was female. There was one female in the department, and there were hardly any women teaching in the business school. It was brought home for me that I didn’t fit in.

But here, it’s never been an issue. When I came there were [very few] women, and there weren’t that many women in antitrust, which is what I do. But it’s never really been an issue for me as much as it’s been a fact.

BF: Yeah, you’re just aware.

LC: But has it really changed anything? I don’t think it has. I think I’ve gotten benefits.

RV: What kind of benefits do you feel you’ve gotten?

LC: I think my professors really cared about me in a different way. I always picked up mentors, so I had my mentors. I don’t know, I think that they realized that things were rough, that things around me were really ugly, and so they were mother hen-y to make sure that all of this stuff wouldn’t affect me. At Brookings they were definitely sheltering and nurturing to mentor [us]. I definitely think I got more of that than many of my male colleagues.

RV: Can you talk about your experience working at the FTC?

BF: I enjoy that I work on a variety of things, and that I’ve had the freedom to still do independent research. I have a very close friend at colleague at William & Mary with whom I continue to do academic research. I love the people and the challenges that we face. I think the other economists that we have in the Bureau of Economics are some of the brightest economists I’ve ever met. Any question I have there’s someone I can go to and talk about it with. I also have small children, and the work life balance here is really fantastic.

LC: I like the variety, although now I’m in the front office and do a lot of miscellaneous work that keeps these people going.

BF: And we appreciate it!

LC: But I still get to do economics. I’m later in my career at this point, so I don’t need a lot for myself like I did when I was younger, when I needed the cutting edge stuff. Now I may not know the details, I may not be able to do the high-level econometrics, but I know the concepts and I know how to relate to the other parts of the agency that don’t understand economics. That’s where the teaching comes in, because I know how to translate stuff like that. My career here has been very varied: staff economist, I did some long-term advising, I was in the commissioner’s office, I was a manager, and now I’m in the front office. I’ve had a really wide variety, which has been fantastic.

RV: What would you say to any young girls or current female college students who are considering going into graduate school or economics graduate school?

LC: See if you really like math. You can’t do economics without math.

BF: I think the school that you pick is very important. You need to find a place where you’re going to be comfortable, if you have a competitive spirit or if you need a place that’s going to be more nurturing. Talk to as many people as possible about their experiences. Talk to professors and make sure they’re people that you’d want to work with. And yes, math matters.

LC: I would echo that. It’s important to find professors that have interests that align with your. Or you may not know your interests, but if you have some general gist. They’re not going to spend time with you if you’re way over here, if you’re not doing something that they’re generally interested in in some way. I went to a very competitive grad school and they told you that on day one. Also really look at the job placement. This is a trade education, and you need to know what you’re going to get at the end of it.

BF: And I didn’t know how important the advisor was until I was into the dissertation process. Your advisor does a lot. They can make a big difference. I had an advisor that was incredibly nurturing. You might go to a school with a better rank, but they don’t have professors there that will treat their students very well. You figure that out by talking with people.

LC: Do your research. But you can always get out. You may think you really want to do this, but find out it’s really not, and that’s just fine. It’s really important to recognize that just because you went there with this idea doesn’t mean you have to keep going that way; there are always outside options.

Thank you to Liz and Beth for being interviewed for this post. Check back in next Tuesday for another topic on girls’ education in the United States.

The Great Implications of Poverty

By GIRLWITHABOOK Intern, Rosie Vita

Poverty; low-income households; minimum wage: these are all words that often seem to be used by politicians every election season. But what are the effects of American poverty on education without the manipulation of politics? As it turns out, poverty is a complex issue with many factors, often overlapping, that can have profound effects especially on early childhood education.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 20 percent of children in school were in families living in poverty. This percentage is higher across the board in the lower half of the United States and the District of Columbia, with Mississippi topping out at 29 percent of children living below the poverty line. Poverty isn’t just limited to geographic region, either. The intersectionality of race and poverty is both noteworthy and troubling; it’s also worthwhile to point out that the southern United States have larger proportions of black and Hispanic populations than northern states. As of 2014, 38 percent of black children, 35 percent of American Indian/Alaska native children, and 32 percent of Hispanic children were living in poverty, as opposed to just 12 percent of white children and Asian children. The links between race and poverty in this country easily warrant their own article, so I suggest reading here for a better understanding of the racial disparities and consequences.

Another noteworthy statistic is that the rate of child poverty greatly increases in single-parent homes for all races; more than half of all black, Hispanic, and American Indian children living in households led by a single mother are living in poverty. These statistics obviously don’t give us the whole story, but they do show that geographic location, race, gender, and the combination thereof have profound ties to child poverty.

Free and reduced lunches are often used as a point of reference to measure poverty and low-income households and their effects in public schools. According to the USDA, the government agency that sets the guidelines for free and reduced lunches, the income eligibility guidelines are based on the Federal income poverty guidelines. In 2013, the Southern Education Fund and NCES found that, for the first time in fifty years, the majority of students in public schools came from low-income households, meaning that they qualified for free and reduced lunches.

But what does all of this mean? Poverty amongst children, especially in early childhood, has lasting consequences that often turn into a cycle, affecting generation after generation. According to a Princeton University article, children not living in poverty outperformed impoverished children in school two to one. Children living in poverty were twice as likely than their peers to repeat a grade, be expelled or suspended, and drop out of high school. This isn’t surprising, seeing as children living in poverty are much more likely than other children to have physical health problems, developmental delays and learning disabilities, and behavioral problems. Female teenagers are three times more likely to have a baby if they come from a poor family.

Looking back at my time in school, especially high school, these statistics take on a human form. I went to a racially diverse high school: 43 percent white, 25 percent black and 23 percent Hispanic. It wasn’t uncommon to see a Porsche or other luxury vehicle in the student parking lot, while 31 percent of the student body was on free and reduced lunches. While I wasn’t as aware of my privilege then as I am now, I did recognize that coming from a two-income white household that I was set up for success. Not only did I have health insurance and three nutritious meals a day, but I also had college-educated parents who understood the importance of early childhood education. I was read to at home every night as a child, and attended preschool. At the end of the day, I went home to a home-cooked dinner, warm bed, and parents to help me with my homework, while many of my classmates most likely went home hungry to one parent or two struggling to make ends meet. Is it surprising that I ended up excelling in high school and following in my parents’ footsteps to college while many of my classmates did not? I hope that after reading this article, you’re not surprised, either. 

Creating Her Own Space: An Interview with Erica West

By GIRLWITHABOOK Intern, Rosie Vita

This week’s interview is with Erica West. Erica is a rising senior at the College of William & Mary, where she is studying American Studies and Government. On campus, she is involved with the Lambda Alliance, women’s chorus, and Wesley Campus Ministries. She is the co-president of the William & Mary Public Policy Initiative, the VP Secretary of Diversity on the Student Assembly, and a SEED [Student Engagement & Empowerment through Dialogue] Dialogue Coordinator for the Center for Student Diversity. After she graduates next spring, Erica wants to take a gap year before going to Seminary to receive her Masters of Divinity.

RV: What is your family’s background? What environment were you raised in?

EW: Both of my parents grew up way below the poverty line. My dad didn’t have a bathroom in his house until he was ten. He split his time between the country and the city, in DC southeast. It was not a nice place to grow up. My mom grew up in the inner city of Wilmington, North Carolina. They both grew up with relatively large families.

My mom went to college. Luckily, Jimmy Carter was president, and he was like “okay, if you are below ‘this’ on the poverty line, here’s some money and you’re going to school.” She got lucky with timing there. She ended up going to three different schools for personal reasons, but she graduated from UNCW in Wilmington. She [studied] math.

My dad was enrolled to go to college but never actually went to class. He was in the military first; he enlisted, and decided later in life that he wanted to go to school. But then some things happened while he was living in Colorado here in DC with some family, which he had to come back for, so he never got that opportunity.

But, as Beyoncé would say, they’ve made some lemonade out of these lemons. My dad makes a lot of money for someone who never got a degree. He worked in the Air Force, and now he does intelligence for the DoD. I don’t know what he does for a living, but I’m not supposed to know. My mom does accounts receivable for a nonprofit. She makes way more money than her parents would have every dreamed of.

I’ve grown up upper middle class. I grew up in [Fairfax County, Virginia]. I live on a cul-de-sac it’s very suburban. A pretty diverse neighborhood.  I grew up United Methodist. I went away from the church for about a year when I was figuring out some things, like my sexuality, but I decided more than a year ago to stick with Christianity and a year ago to stick with Methodism. I actually want to go to Divinity School and get ordained. That’s a story for another day with the United Methodist Church. I decided to stick with them because that’s where I feel the need is the greatest. I could go to a more progressive denomination, and do wonderful things don’t get me wrong, and it might still happen, but for right now I see that it’s such an expansive, global denomination that there needs to be change happening there.

RV: What is your view of gender roles, and what has molded or impacted this view?

EW: I think that they’re dumb. I never really bought into them, because I’ve never really fit neatly into the stereotype of what a girl is “supposed” to be. Once I had the words to understand that gender is a social construct I was able to put words to the things I already thought. People need to disseminate responsibilities and things based on what their strengths are. My dad is very much a macho man, very masculine, and sometimes in toxic ways. I’ll pick up something that he thinks is heavy, and be handling it just fine, but he’ll ask me if [I] need a man to carry that for [me]. My dad, mind you, had a massive heart attack, so he doesn’t need to be carrying anything heavy. But he’s a man so he thinks he needs to do this. I am a healthy, able-bodied 21-year-old person; I can carry this by myself. So that’s one example.

I’ve definitely strayed from what I was taught growing up in churches led by black men. They always reinforced that men have their role, women have their own, and my parents really still do that. I challenge them to do something differently. But they’re not as bad as some people, and my church is not as bad as some places. My mom grew up in the South, so down there there’s definitely more of a reinforced “this is how it is” way of thinking. And my dad is a black man.

RV: What are you studying?

EW: I’m a double major in American Studies and Government. I hate Government and love American Studies. I call them my mullet majors; business in the front, that’s Government, and a party in the back, that’s American Studies.  My research interests have been in the role of the Black church in political movements in the United States, particularly in issues of morality politics. So all of the hot button topics. I’ve particularly focused on the LGBTQ community, especially in Maryland, and some referendums they’ve had there in the past that involve the Black church as a political tool. I’ve looked at the general progressive Protestant movement as it involves LGBTQ individuals. I’ve also looked into abortion and reproductive justice.

RV: You’re involved with Center for Student Diversity. Can you tell me about your involvement there and why it’s important to you?

EW: I started my sophomore year as a SEED Dialogue Facilitator. SEED Dialogue is not a debate because nobody is trying to win, but it’s not necessarily a discussion because we’re not trying to find common ground. It’s people talking about where they’re from, speaking with an I-perspective, and then sharing their experiences with one another. If people connect with them, they do, and if they feel strongly against it, they do, and at the end we all come away understanding more about the person we’re with. I facilitated my first one, that was sexuality and race, and then I became a coordinator. I did one on political correctness.

Why is it important to me? I came to college and I was “lost in the sauce” as I like to say. I did not know what was going on. I was not a feminist when I came to college because had been painted to me as bra burning lesbians. They were right about one thing—I’m a lesbian—but they were not right about the bra burning. Basically, it was radical, and I was like, “I’m not radical, these people don’t want to get anything done.” I knew about the [women’s] suffrage movement, but it was very far away from me, and did not feel applicable.

Then I got to school, thank God, met some people who were different from me, and they were so gracious and gave me a lot of space to say some egregious things. I defended some things I had never thought critically about because nobody had ever pushed me to think critically about it and it’d been constantly reinforced. They encouraged me to read, talk critically, and think logically. It took some time, a semester or two, but I came around and I [realized] I was a feminist for sure. My freshman year in the spring semester the Sigma Chi email came out, and I took Intro to Gender and Women’s Studies at the same time, so it was a perfect storm for me to become a feminist, an intersectional feminist.

I said all of that to say that I think it’s so important to create that space where they can say things that may not be quote-on-quote PC, or that may not be the “right” thing to say, but that they understand within their context. Because if no one had done that for me, I’d still be lost. I think that a lot of times, especially in activist spaces, people who tend to be more progressive and “get it” now become insular and don’t allow in people who don’t know how to talk about it because they might offend someone. I get that, but there has to be a space for education, and talking it through, and I think that [the Center for Student Diversity] is a really great way to do that.

RV: Why is higher education important to you?

EW: I really do see higher education as one of the keys to the kingdom, if you will. The reason my mom at least was able to access a lot of the things she’s been able to access is because she did graduate from college. She was the first person from her family to do it. My dad, he entered a very elite portion of the military and a really good branch, and was able to work off of that. Number one: you shouldn’t have to go into the military to have access to economic opportunity. Two: he got very lucky, because he’s a smart guy anyway. That’s also because for part of his life he was in a really good school system. That really influenced him; he talks about it all the time.

I see that, and as a black person, I think of ways I can help my people. I want to help ensure that we can build wealth and get away from poverty. Education is that way; college is that way. Economic justice is one reason that college is important and affirmative action is important. We need to make up for things in the past that have kept people from accessing  all these opportunities that other groups have been able to have. And if we can’t do it by direct reparations because slavery happened and that is traumatic and has had lasting impacts on this country, because of redlining—I could go on for days about policies that have screwed over black people, and indigenous people. [If we can’t have that], then we need to have affirmative action, because it’s been proven across many countries that [education] is the key to getting out of poverty.

RV: What do you feel are society’s expectations for you, and do they align with your expectations for yourself?

EW: No, they don’t align. I think that when anyone tells someone in the DC or mid-Atlantic area that [they] go to William & Mary, I think there’s a level of respect because it’s known as a good school, and you probably present yourself as someone who has a clue because you go to William & Mary and it’s taught you to some degree how to have a clue, hopefully. But it’s also interesting as a black person coming from William & Mary, people are always ridiculously surprised. They don’t see that as a place, even now, where black people, or people of color, go. For instance, when I go to Williamsburg in the greater city to get my hair done or go to a store, black people will talk to me and ask if I’m a student. Then they’ll ask I go to VCU, ODU, CNU, they throw in all the other ones. Then I go, “no, I go to William & Mary,” and they’re so impressed, they’re so proud. That always touches me, because most of the people I’m talking to did not go to school, and they’re in the service industry, for which I know they don’t get a lot of respect. I know, I worked in the service industry. So for them, they’re seeing someone who they think isn’t supposed to be in a space, thriving in a space, being there and doing something.

Society clearly doesn’t think that we, black people, are supposed to be at William & Mary, or making more than a certain amount of money, or being in social programs, living in certain zip codes. I live in a middle class zip code in a nice house, and when people come over to my house, especially if they’re white, they aren’t trying to be rude, but they don’t expect it. In high school, there was a sharp divide between [neighborhoods and race].

I see all of that for myself, I see more than a suburb. I see being president. People have a lot to say about President Obama and his entire family, but he really does stand for something really important. I see him and I see myself. There’s not just him, there are a lot of other people who are in positions of power now, and he has helped make that happen but ensuring the White House is a much more diverse place.

RV: Have you ever felt discrimination in the classroom?

EW: For sure. I remember there was one time, in 9th grade; I was in advanced biology. Even though my school didn’t have a majority of any one race, but the advanced classes were mostly white. I was in class and we had to do a literature review of some sort of plant for a whole year. My reading comprehension is very high, it has been my whole life, and I sounded a lot older than I was in 9th grade [in my writing]. I wrote my literature review and turned it in. And my teacher circled a[n advanced] word and wrote “is this your word?” on the page. At first I thought maybe I’d spelled it wrong or used it out of context. But I looked it up and [I’d used it correctly]. I looked up the literature reviews to see if maybe I’d taken it from an abstract on accident, but I hadn’t, it was my word [choice] that I’d written. But my teacher, she thought I’d taken it, that I’d plagiarized. I asked my friends, of all races, if she’d said anything similar on their papers, [and she hadn’t]. I talked to my teacher about it, and she was a young white woman. I asked her why she thought I hadn’t written this word. And her explanation didn’t make sense. It seemed like she was trying very hard not to make it about race.  But at the end of the day I think she didn’t expect me to use that word, because why would I know that word if I didn’t grow up around a certain way of living or have access to things that would allow me to have that [vocabulary]. I remember it stinging because I really liked her, but in that moment I felt discriminated against because of my age and a hidden racism.

I had a Spanish teacher my senior year of high school who discriminated actively against people of color. She would call black boys in the class “boy,” which may seem like she’s just calling someone boy which is a little inappropriate. But if you think about the history of why black people, and black men particularly, get called “boy,” it’s to make them lesser than. And she didn’t call the white boys that. She sometimes called the Latino boys “boy” as well. I asked her why she wasn’t using their names—because they have a name, and it isn’t “boy.”  I called her out in class, [and I told her] that I didn’t think it was appropriate for her to be calling so-and-so “boy,” and I noticed she only did it to people of color. We had a long discussion where I told her why it’s wrong, and gave her the whole history. She said she would stop calling people “boy,” which she did for two classes, then she turned around and did it again. It made me realize that white privilege can come out [in many forms].

In college I haven’t felt it as much. I think mainly because I’ve taken a lot of Gender Studies and Women’s Studies classes, so you’re going to do pretty well in those classes in terms of not being discriminated against. I’ve taken a lot of American Studies classes, which are interdisciplinary and tend to overlap with Africana Studies so those are fine. I have one thing from college. This year I was taking research methods with a professor who is a white male. Towards the end of the year he gave us the option to take our final exam one of two days. I thought that what you had to do was tell him beforehand so that he had the right number of [test] booklets. I emailed him and let him know which day I’d be taking my final. He responded back extremely rudely, and said “I know you don’t come to class a lot, but you could at least try to pay attention,” and basically dug into me. I thought I was just doing him a favor by telling him which day I’d be coming to the exam. It was so bad that he apologized, sort of, within an hour. He was like, “sorry I was aggressive, but I do think that you need to pay attention in class.” My grade did not reflect that, nor my attendance record. I was mad. I went into my email and found every time I had emailed him because I was sick or out of town. I printed it out, then went to his syllabus and highlighted what his attendance policy was and compared the two. I went to his review session that night after emailing him telling him I wanted to talk about it. We went outside to talk in the hallway, and I read him his email to him. Then I pulled out my evidence and read him his attendance policy and the dates that I had been absent. At first he tried to protest, but when I pointed out that I had the evidence with me, he backed down.

I say all of this long story because I wondered to myself, as the only back person in the class and one of the few people of color, if I had been even a white female, would he have talked to me that way, would he have assumed I was a terrible student without even looking at his records to back it up. Part of me thinks that he wouldn’t have done it.

RV: We’re hearing a lot in the media that black women are the most oppressed group in the United States. Can you speak to that from your own personal experience?

EW: I have been pretty fortunate; I have been sheltered from a lot of things like sexism, racism, and homophobia in a lot of ways, but not every way by, being upper middle class. A lot of the things you face systemically happen because you don’t have access to resources, like monetary capital. Luckily my family does, to some degree.

Let’s break it down. So, you’re a woman. I have excellent health insurance, but, there’s been times when our health insurance would shift and there wasn’t 100% certainty of birth control, especially before Obama Care. I’m queer, so I’m not out here trying to make any babies, and I’m not doing anything where I’m going to be making babies, but people use birth control for more than just not having children. For me, with acne problems and other hormonal things, birth control was what my doctor would put me on. But we weren’t always sure it was going to be covered. As a woman, any woman, that’s a hard thing to have to deal with all the time. It’s ridiculously expensive for something that’s essential. For a lot of black people, including people in my family, they don’t have health insurance. You have to find a way to get the things you need, otherwise things happen, like unplanned pregnancies, which there are a lot of in my family.

I think a lot of that can be traced back to lack of wealth and resource, and also knowledge, to be fair. I got a pretty good sex ed for the country—which is not saying a lot. A lot of people in the country don’t have that. A lot of people of color, including black people, don’t live in Fairfax County and areas of Virginia where they have [quality] educational access. You have the knowledge piece that’s missing. You have the socioeconomic, wealth piece that’s missing. And you have race on top of that. So as a black woman, you’re always hyper-sexualized, you’re always masculinized; you’re always seen as a little less of a woman than a white woman. When people think of a woman, they think of a white woman, they don’t think of a black woman. I’m always [called] a “black woman,” I’m never a “woman” by itself. I think when you look at it that why, there are a lot of issues just from health care access. Women are left vulnerable and unprotected by these measures, which is terrible.

I would also say when it comes to relationships, not just romantically, but even with your professor, I question if my race had something to do with it. If I was a white woman, who is usually protected; people go out of their way to protect white women’s feelings; if I’d been treated the way I was by my professor who is a white male.

Black women especially, if they have a “resting bitch face,” it’s held to a much higher degree of scrutiny than it is for any other people. They may just have a natural face that doesn’t look pleasant all the time, it’s just their face, but they’re scrutinized a lot for it. They have a nasty attitude, or they’re lazy and don’t want to work, they don’t want to be at their job because they’re a black person with bad characters. All of that is compounded by the fact that they’re a woman, and women are supposed to be genteel and always pleasant, and always ready to serve. When it comes to relationships and expectations of people, black women are often left unprotected. I’ve some of it where the expectations are that I’ll be the meanest person ever, like when I worked in food services, because I’m black. I had a number of experiences where people would call me stupid if they didn’t like the way I was doing something, even though it was something I had to do due to protocol.

RV: What do you think of girls’ education in America? What do you think of education in America? What do you think we as a society can improve?

EW: Girls’ education in America obviously depends on where you grow up. In Fairfax County, where I grew up, it was pretty exceptional. There was a lot of equal access to opportunity, and in terms of sexual education, which is so important; I think they did a pretty good job in the context of the country. I would say if you go down South, in places where you’re literally not allowed to say certain words in class, health education is lacking to give women and girls any sort of agency.

I think in terms of our representation in history in this country it’s abysmal. Even in AP classes. I come to college and realize that all these things they taught us were BS. For example, we talked about the [women’s] suffrage movement: Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton. But did we talk about Ida B. Wells? Did we talk about the racism in the suffrage movement? Did we talk about the fact that black women were fighting for these rights while also dealing with the realities of slavery just ending? We talked about Frederick Douglass a little bit, but he’s only one. I think Ida B. Wells is a big one, but we never talked about her, at least not in my school. I think about people across America and I think, what are they learning? When it comes to representation in history, things could be a lot better, and that’s just in general, but especially uplifting women’s voices and women of color. We could get into queer history and talk about the same thing, because we don’t ever talk about it in school, and we need to.

I think that there could always be more uplift of people of color, women of color, especially women in STEM. That’s the big push now, and we have got to note the women, the women of color, and the intersectionality there. No one needs to be left out, no one.

We have to read more women writers, we have to read more people of color writers, and we have to read more women of color writers. There are so many who are so prolific, and we don’t read them.

I’m not the biggest fan of representation as our way to freedom, but I think in the educational context that’s so important. You spend most of your life in school, especially through college. I think that we have to be cognizant of how we teach our students who matters, and whose voice matters in this country. The only way to do that is through representation of whom we read and whom we teach.

Thank you to Erica for being interviewed for this post. Check back in next Tuesday for another topic on girls’ education in the United States!

Erica West

Erica West

More Than a Distraction: School Dress Codes

By GIRLWITHABOOK Intern, Rosie Vita

School dress codes have been a topic of heated discussion for years, but it seems that recently stories have been making headlines not just of dress code violations, but of students, particularly female students, making a stand against them. Many female students have been making headlines in the last year or two as they stand up to their school administrations for alleged sexist policies regarding clothing. These students allege that they are being told to change what they’re wearing because they are distracting the male students, and are often made to change at school or are sent home. With the recent conversation, the rules and their purpose need a second look.

Growing up, nothing made me more conscious of my changing, pubescent body than my middle school dress code. Starting from age ten I hit a growth spurt that lasted about four years; I grew out of my clothes quickly, and my parents couldn’t keep up with my need for a new wardrobe every season. My body was also in limbo; with my height and newly emerging pre-teen body, I didn’t fit into the clothes and styles of my childhood, but was also too young for the mature couture of the women’s sections. I felt stuck and uncomfortable; I wanted to be able to wear something other than t-shirts and Bermuda shorts like my shorter friends. When I did venture out of this small box of clothing choices, however, I was met with consequences that made me feel even more uncomfortable than a preteen girl already does.

I vividly remember walking into school one day in the spring of seventh grade; it was hot, muggy Virginia weather, but I felt cool and confident in my new pair of plaid shorts that all of my friends were wearing (it was 2007, please forgive me). Inches from my locker during the morning rush, I was stopped by our vice principal. She informed me that my shorts were “too short” and “inappropriate,” then had me reach down with both hands at my side as she used the length of my arms to illustrate this fact. As the tip of my middle finger just reached past the end of my new shorts, I was instructed to go and change into my gym shorts, and not to wear those shorts to school again. I was humiliated. And my humiliation continued throughout the day, as I was branded with those gym shorts to everyone who saw me as a girl who had violated the dress code. That humiliation happened again when my male seventh grade math teacher stopped me as I walked into his classroom one morning wearing a tank top. He held up his three fingers to the strap of my tank top to show me that I had, again, violated the dress code by wearing an “inappropriate” shirt; the dress code stated that sleeve lengths must be at least three fingers wide. I was relegated back to the gym locker room to change into my gym shirt, and was again faced with the humiliation of being one of “those girls,” and missing the first twenty minutes of my math class. At the time, being only twelve years old, I didn’t have the courage to stand up to that vice principal or math teacher to point out to them the subjectivity of this code. I didn’t explain to the vice principal that arm lengths differ, but short lengths are the same; my arms went past the end of my shorts and they seemed to show more leg, but when you’re six inches taller than the other girls your age, you have more leg to show. I didn’t point out to my math teacher the difference in finger widths between a middle-aged man and a pre-teen girl; my tank top was wider than my three fingers—I had checked before I wore it to school that day.

I say all of this not to bemoan my middle school experience—I have a diary for that—or to condemn those individual educators. They are small parts of a much larger problem affecting many schools, typically public, around the country, that tends to target girls. Speaking from personal experience, I rarely saw boys subjected to the shame of changing into their gym uniforms during the day, but it was a regular occurrence for girls. For me, it was the first time I saw my body as something that needed to be covered, hidden, or seen as a distraction. It was a quick and harsh ushering into adulthood, and the burden of womanhood. My legs, something I’d been proud of for their strength and speed, became objects that needed to be covered and hidden. What became even more clear in the phrasing of the reprimands handed out by the teachers and administrators at my school, was that it wasn’t for reasons of respect or professionalism that our young bodies needed to be covered; it was because they were a distraction, same as the gang signs and swear words that were also banned by the dress code. I became very conscious of my body, something that has stuck with me and which I’ve almost accepted as a part of being a woman.

What, then, is the solution? Is there a value to school dress codes? There are arguments with merit on both sides. What is clear to me is that our focus has been on the wrong thing, and the consequence is the objectification and sexualization of girls’ bodies in a place they should feel safe to learn. Instead of going to math class, I was made painfully aware that my body was something that needed to be covered immediately at the expense of my education.

It’s important that we remember this when framing the rules of a dress code and the language we use to enforce it. It’s important to remember why there’s a dress code—and it’s not to police girls’ bodies because they may distract boys, which is often cited as a reason girls are reprimanded for dress code violations. Dress codes should be a tool to teach children the importance of respect for their education and certain spaces, not a tool for shaming them. Certain elements of a dress code reflect this sentiment: no hats on indoor, and no gang symbols or profanity. These are rules that can be applied to all students, and serve the purpose of maintaining a safe and respectful environment to encourage learning. There are arguments for more modest dress that applies to all genders, and they may have merit. I hope for all seventh grade girls in the future that they can be guided in their dress by their schools not to reduce “distractions” for the boys, but to respect themselves and their environment to grow into confident, educated women.

My extremely awkward first day of 8th grade picture--thanks Dad!

My extremely awkward first day of 8th grade picture--thanks Dad!


Pressure and Expectation: An Interview with Layla Abi-Falah

By GIRLWITHABOOK Intern, Rosie Vita

This week’s interview is with Layla Abi-Falah. Layla is a rising senior at the College of William & Mary, where she is studying International Relations with a concentration in human rights in the Middle East and Africa. Layla works in several research projects on campus, and has spent most of her time recently studying for the LSAT. Her goal is to become a human rights lawyer; basically, she wants to be the next Amal Clooney!

RV: What is your family’s background?

LA: My dad moved here during the Lebanese Civil War, which was a war that lasted about twenty years. They fled and my dad had a plan to come here and go to school here. My mom followed later on when he got settled. They moved here in the 70s and my dad went to VCU, so they’ve been in Richmond for a really long time. It’s where my sister was born and it’s where I was born. My sister and I are Lebanese-American, we’re Arab-Americans, so that’s important to a lot of our upbringing and our views on the world. It’s been a blessing to have those two identities.

RV: What has affected your personal view of gender roles?

LA: Being Arab and being American I have these definite different views. A lot of people think that Arab women are very much second-class citizens. In a lot of countries, like Saudi Arabia or Iran, they are very much second-class citizens. They’ve had a lot of their rights taken away, but something that I’ve been able to see in Lebanon is that the women—I’ve never met a weak Arab woman. There’s no such thing. They’re very strong, they’re very willed. Arab mothers are terrifying; they have reigns of terror. They’re very strong and empowered, but at the same time there are definitely things that, even though they’re strong and empowered, they’re definitely strong and empowered within the household. They take on the gender role of being mothers and being caretakers and doing the housework, doing the cleaning, doing the cooking. That’s definitely what I’ve seen with my aunts and my grandmother, how the older generation they’ve taken on those gender roles, but I’ve seen how the new generation [is different]. For example I have a cousin who works for the UN and she went to college, she speaks three languages, she’s amazing and I love her very much. She works for the UN now, and she definitely rejects that gender role. What we see here, where are there these gender roles that the new generation is rejecting, the same thing is happening in Lebanon. I think gender roles still exist and there are still spheres that women are confined to, or expected to be in. Even my cousin, I’m sure as soon as she finds a guy and gets married she’s going to have to be the one who takes off from her job at the UN and stays at home and takes care of the kids. Even though she’s a strong and empowered person, there’s definitely still a societal expectation that goes along with the fact that she is the woman and she’s having the baby, and she has to go home and take care of the baby that she had. I don’t think there would ever be a situation, especially in Lebanon, where a man would stay at home, whereas here it can be more common. I definitely see a lot of the juxtaposing; this is how some people are, this is how some people are breaking it, but it’s not been a completely broken role of women, so it’s still very prevalent in a lot of different ways.

I’ve definitely seen it and thought; well I cannot have that happen to me. I will not conform to that.

RV: How do you see yourself in these gender roles? What are your expectations for yourself?

LA: I don’t want to get too much like “this is what I want to be when I grow up,” but that’s what it kind of is. The way I see the next ten, twenty years playing out is that I want to go to law school, and my eventual goal is to be a human rights lawyer for the UN. I would love to have a family and I always joke with my friends that I just want one little perfect girl. I definitely want that, but I wouldn’t see myself getting married unless I knew it was somebody who was catching up to the 21st century. We’re going to share responsibilities, because by the time I would want to have a kid I would want to have a name for myself. I don’t want to give all that up. For me, fighting the gender role is to find somebody who would fight it with me. I don’t think women can do it by themselves; we have to have men who are in it with [us].

RV: Do you feel support for that from your family?

LA: Yes. My mom—as I’ve grown up, I’ve realized more of what she’s done. I’ve realized how amazing she is and how strong she is. Even though she does fit kind of perfectly into gender norms; she followed my dad and was at home taking care of my sister and me, and now works part time to take care of us and come home and clean. While my dad can kind of fit the role of the Arab dad; he goes to work, come home and sits on the couch not doing anything, and tells my sister and me to go help our mom. At the same time, even though there are times when I get really annoyed with him and say, “No I don’t want to go help mom do the dishes, you go help her, I’m actually studying for this exam I have tomorrow, you’re just watching TV, why can’t you do it?” and there’s that tension there, I know my parents are really proud of me and really excited about the things I do. All the things my mom does, for all of us, it’s really inspiring and I respect her for it. She wakes up at 5 am every day and just goes at it. I would never do that, it’s crazy, but I respect her for doing it. She definitely wants more for me; she wants me to be able to wake up at 5 am because I have to finish a brief or a case. They’re both really supportive.

RV: How were you raised to view education, and what is you family’s view and expectation of your education?

LA: I don’t know if you’ve heard of tiger moms or tiger dads, but those are my parents. Arab parents are really strict, so education is the most important thing in the entire world. It was always A or nothing. If we didn’t get an A we were in big trouble. Education was super important in our house. I remember coming home from preschool and my mom saying, “Okay, you’re not going to play right now, we’re going to sit and read this book.” Whenever my friends would come over to my house, she’d still make me do it. She’d force them to read, too.

Kind of how I was referring to my dad saying to go help my mom with the dishes, he didn’t know that I had [homework]. But if they knew, my mom would [refuse help] and tell me she needed me to go study. Both of them would say, “We’ll do everything, we need you to go study.” Here’s an example of something that happened recently. I got my credit card stolen, and I was freaking out. My parents were like, “Calm down, we’ll take care of it, now go study.” I had a final the next morning. They never want anything to come in the way of [my education].

RV: Do you think that your parents being immigrants, and possibly being in search of that “American Dream” concept has affected their expectation of you? Do you feel pushed or do you feel that education holds such a value because it’s a key to something more?

LA: I think so; I think if we hadn’t moved here and we’d been living in Lebanon, I feel like I would still have those expectations, but it would also be a different cultural setting. For instance, I think that I would probably put my educational responsibilities on the back burner for family obligations, because that’s how it is over there; family first. It’s a different situation here than it would be in Lebanon.

But they moved here to get a better life for themselves and their kids. Now there’s this expectation that we’ll fulfill that. They always say, “We want you to do better than we did ourselves.” My mom was valedictorian of her high school: very smart. But there was nowhere to go from there. So she said [I] needed to so what she did, but then go somewhere with it. There’s this expectation that because they didn’t get to do it, we have to.

RV: How do their expectations affect your views and expectations of yourself?

LA: I don’t think that my expectations have been tied to that. Maybe at the beginning when I was in elementary school, I felt that I had to get an A because my mom said that I had to get an A. But I think by the time I got into middle school, and then high school and now in college, it became something that I wanted and expected for myself. Doing well and getting a good education: I have my own expectations for myself, like becoming a human rights lawyer. I think that when I was little they had me on the right path; concentrating and doing well from the get-go; but I don’t think now I sit here and think that I need to do well because my parents did this for me.

RV: How do you think that your goals for yourself might have been different had you been in Lebanon instead of the US?

LA: I don’t know if I would be the same person with the same goals; I might be. There are a lot of [women], like my cousins. I would hope that seeing examples set by my cousins, I would be influenced to be great like them. I might not be as motivated, because I would have the expectation of getting married, and getting married to a Druze guy, and we’d have to have little Druze babies, and that would have to be a part of the goal, too. I think that it would have been more family and community-centered goals than my individual goals. My work would have been more likely a 9-5 job instead of my main purpose.

RV: What are some challenges you’ve personally faced within your educational career?

LA: In elementary school, just the pressure that if I didn’t get an A then I’d be in trouble. That pressure turned into my own pressure that I was setting for myself. That’s been a huge struggle I’ve had: the expectations and perfection. I’ll think that if I don’t do something perfectly then nothing else will go according to plan.

Even now, for example, I had a test for International Political Economy. This has been the hardest class ever; I don’t think I’ve taken a harder class at William & Mary. I worked so hard on it, but I still don’t think I did really well on the final, so maybe I’ll have a B at the end of the semester. So that pressure makes me think that now I have to study 10x harder on the LSAT because my GPA is going to go down. Then I won’t go to the law school I want, and I won’t get the job I want, and my expectations and stress become this domino effect. It started from my parents in elementary school and became my own stress from there.

RV: What else motivates you within education? Not necessarily academic achievement, but what motivates you to continue your education?

LA: My goal to be a human rights lawyer all started in 9th grade when I was in this history club at my high school. I thought “History club? I love history! Are we going to debate Napoleon or something? Napoleon: good guy or bad guy?” I walk in and it was more of a human rights club. We walk in and the first thing that we see is this video The Lost Boys of Sudan. And it just made me sob. I thought, “Why was this happening?” At that point I’d only heard bad things from my parents, like Palestinian flights. I was actually seeing it, and it inspired me. It got me on this path that I have to do something about what’s happening in the Middle East, in Africa. I have to do something that matters, especially [for] women and especially [for] children. That’s what got me going, and then I knew I wanted to work for the UN because my parents took me to New York the next year and we took a tour of the UN. I thought it would be boring but we toured this one section about UNICEF. If there had to be one section of the UN I wanted to work for it would be UNICEF. It had all of this information about what they were doing for kids and education, and I thought it was amazing.

Those two factors that happened within a year really changed my life. I always knew I wanted to be a lawyer, but I didn’t know what kind. Then this happened and I knew I had to be a human rights lawyer. I want to give these people a voice. That’s what drives me everyday.

RV: What is the most important thing you’ve learned in university?

LA: The most important thing I’ve learned…aside from the West sucks? That’s basically the International Relations major, that the West sucks. I guess it’s how to be wrong. Especially last semester, it’s how to be wrong. Not that I always thought I was right, but how to be wrong and learn what the right thing is.

[Also], I was in a class with my research professor, called Politics in Africa. We were discussing humanitarian aid and human rights, and we were discussing agency. Agency in itself is a huge thing I’ve learned as well. The professor said, “When you think you’re going to go save Africa, or whatever place you think needs your saving, that takes away their agency. They’re very capable of saving themselves, so let’s talk about new ways of lending a helping hand, but not saving.” It was a huge thing that I learned, because it affected the way I saw myself in this whole scene. I wasn’t coming in as a savior. This is my goal, but now I need to know I need to talk about it differently and frame it differently, because I want to give these people a voice, I don’t want to be their voice.

RV: How has your worldview changed since coming to college?

LA: I’ve definitely become very aware. And of course you become aware, that’s the point of college. But I think that the level of awareness that I’ve gotten about the world around me, even from little tiny Williamsburg, is crazy. I’ve learned so many things about agency, what has gone wrong in the world, and why it’s still not better. We always think that we’re in the West, and so we’re going to help everyone else. But then, like I said with the whole agency talk, it changed my view to not trust everything, and really understanding and going deeper. It’s made me super aware of everything that I hear and see, and taking the veil off to really uncover something.

RV: What interests you the most about working with other countries and cultures?

LA: I think there’s a lot to learn from other people. I take Arabic and French, and I’m obsessed with learning languages. They’re the key to entering another culture. Since I want to work in the Middle East and Africa, those are the two main languages. It’s been really exciting for me to  open up with these different cultures and whole different way of think and way of life.

Since becoming a French major, we’ve learned about laïcité [French secularism], and I think that when you learn about French culture and language, you start being able to look at them and understand the way they act. That’s really important, because a lot of people go into international relations thinking, “I’m going to fix this, but I don’t speak French, I don’t speak Spanish, I don’t speak Arabic, but I do speak English and everyone is going to speak English with me.” But then I think, okay, but you can’t understand their culture. You have no idea why they’re doing what they’re doing, you just think that it’s wrong and you’re going to tell them it’s wrong without trying to understand. People tell the French that they’re being racist because of laïcité all the time, but is that really what it is? Is it racist? Or is it their system? So how do we fix something that’s leading to racist issues without understanding what the system is and what the rules are. I think laïcité is a really great example.

RV: You site Amal Clooney as your inspiration and your goal. What about her specifically do you admire and hope to emulate?

LA: I think that she’s done exactly what I envision myself doing. Right now, for instance, she’s doing a case on the Maldives, for this leader who was trying to great things for the Maldives, but then there was a coup and he became a prisoner. I think those kinds of cases are so important, but nobody knows about them. Being the person who cares about what no one else cares about, and being the person who will stand up for what no one else will stand up for, is really important. I think she does a really good job of being this badass, empowered woman. She went to Oxford, NYU, and took this great education and used it to change the world. It sucks though, even me, I didn’t know about her until George Clooney married her. I wish I’d known who she was before then. She’s a great example of a Lebanese, Druze women who really just broke free of the constraints of her culture and decided she was going to do X, Y and Z. Even since her celebrity stardom, she hasn’t slowed down from any of it. She knows people are watching, so she can tell them more [about her causes].

RV: What do you think of education in the US?

LA: I think if we’re going to start from the bottom, like elementary school going up to high school, I was really fortunate. Richmond has great schools; the issue is that some areas have really great schools and others don’t. I’m an Arab-American girl who got to go to great schools in Richmond with specialty centers; does another Arab-American girl living in another area have the same opportunity? It’s always the richer the area, the better the school, the poorer the area the worse the school. I think that America, being the richest country in the world basically, that’s inexcusable.

I don’t know why our lower level education system is so screwed up and based on tests. I got to break free from the system and go to these specialty schools, and [didn’t prioritize standardized testing]. Whereas other schools will heavily prioritize [standardized testing]. I think it’s really unfair that some people don’t get what I’ve gotten or what you’ve gotten. They may not even have the chance to go to college, because after such a crappy education and without the money, how is college ever going to be a reality for them? We always say “American Dream,” but how come our own Americans can’t always live the American Dream?

RV: What about girls’ education in the US?

LA: I think the US does a good job of empowering women. There’s this great speech by Obama that he gave at the commencement of Barnard. It’s an all-girls school in New York. It’s female empowerment that’ll just punch you in the face; it’s great! He said how he wanted the success of the women at Barnard to exist for minority girls in minority areas as well. Especially with minorities, say some other Arab-American girls who didn’t have the schools of Richmond or really supportive parents, they may slide through the cracks of the American system.

But I think the school system does a good job of empowering girls. In the past, girls weren’t being encouraged to enter math and science fields, but now there’s this big movement and encouragement of women in STEM. Even when you say it, it sounds empowering! We still have a long way to get there. There are still issues that exist, but I think we’re doing well relatively. At the same time, as this top leader country, we should be doing better. I think the progress is there.

Thank you to Layla for being interviewed for this post. Check back in next Tuesday for another topic on girls’ education in the United States!

Layla Abi-Falah

Layla Abi-Falah

The Nitty-Gritty on Sex Education

By GIRLWITHABOOK Intern, Rosie Vita

Sex education—the most dreaded section of health class, filled with giggles, flushed cheeks, and uncomfortable teachers. It’s also one of the most important subjects taught in school, and one of the most contested. Sex is prevalent in American high schools; the CDC reported in 2013 that 47% of high school students surveyed have had sex, 34% have had sex within the last three months, and 41% hadn’t used a condom. While teen pregnancy is the lowest it’s been since the beginning of the data collection, sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are still a major threat to health that can have lasting consequences. Girls in particular are often hit the hardest with the effects of teen sex, pointing to the need for quality sex education.

            But all sex education was not created equal. I was lucky enough to be educated in a state that mandates comprehensive sex education. Comprehensive sex education teaches students “anatomy, physiology, families, personal safety, healthy relationships, pregnancy and birth, sexually transmitted diseases including HIV, contraceptives, sexual orientation, pregnancy options, media literacy and more.” I think it’s important to note that the information we were taught was age-appropriate, which is often a concern of critics. Elementary school consisted of basic anatomy, and for girls (I can’t comment on the boys as we were separated by gender) that included menstruation, and an introduction to sex, pregnancy, and STIs. We didn’t delve into the details of sexual intercourse and contraceptives until middle school. By the time I was in high school, I had a good understanding of the many layers of a responsible and healthy sex life, with at least a basic understanding of the risks. I also grew up in a family that encouraged open dialogue. My mom worked as a research nurse in HIV/AIDS, and so I was raised fully aware of not only what could happen due to unsafe sex, but also the importance of responsibility and protection. I was encouraged to ask questions about my body, and was readily supplied with answers and supplemental reading materials (shout-out to the American Girl book The Care and Keeping of You).

            Many high school students, however, are not given such a well-rounded education on their bodies or sexual health. This is a detriment to their health and others. The CDC recommends a comprehensive education. While they officially state that abstinence is the only birth control and STI preventer that is 100% effective, they also address the importance of condoms and other forms of birth control in a healthy sex life. According to the CDC, approximately 23% of students in the US are taught abstinence-only sex education, which is problematic. National studies have shown that there is a positive correlation between abstinence-only sex education and teen pregnancy and birth rates. This correlation really isn’t surprising; keeping a population ignorant of their options won’t prevent them from having sex, it will just keep them from having safe sex.

            Teenage girls are especially harmed by a lack of quality sex education. When teen pregnancy occurs, girls are left with the brunt of the burden. This can derail their education and, depending on their family’s ability to offer financial support, can mean the end to their formal schooling. Studies also show a negative correlation between median household income and abstinence-only education, meaning lower-income states have higher rates of teen pregnancy. This is noteworthy, because a lack of quality sex education and higher rates of teen pregnancy are disproportionally affecting the girls and families in situations least financially capable of handling it. Pregnancy is not the only consequence of a lack of quality sex education. Nearly 10,000 young people were diagnosed with HIV in 2013, and according to the same CDC survey, nearly 10 million of the new STIs were among young people. STIs, particularly HIV, have lasting consequences that can ultimately include death.

            While comprehensive sex education is not going to prevent all teen pregnancies and STIs, it’s a good start. Young people need to be educated on their bodies and sexual health in order to live healthy, responsible lives. Withholding information, such information on contraceptives, is irresponsible of us as a society, and a disservice to the millions of students who rely on schools to give them the education they aren’t provided at home. Want my advice? Open up the conversation with your children, friends, significant others and sexual partners. Talk about your body, your needs, and what you can do to live a healthy sex life, whether that is abstinence or safe sexual practices. We only have one body and one life, so let’s do our best to take care of them.


Race and Identity: An Interview with Jill Turner

By GIRLWITHABOOK Intern, Rosie Vita

This week’s interview is with Jill Turner. Jill recently graduated from the College of William & Mary with a self-designed major in Social Justice and Advocacy, and a minor in Management and Organizational Leadership. At William & Mary, Jill was a group fitness instructor at the campus rec center, an Orientation Aid, and a member of a sorority. This fall she will be teaching at an elementary school in Baltimore, Maryland with Teach for America.

RV: What is your family’s background? What kind of environment (religious, cultural, geographic location, etc.) were you raised in?

JT: My family is African American. I was raised in Holliston, Massachusetts, born in Connecticut, so we’re from the New England area. I have two very religious grandparents—Baptist. Both of my parents went to college in the greater Boston area. Both of my parents went to private school and private universities. I was sent to private school and hated it; I’m very pro-public school.

RV: What is your view of gender roles and what has impacted or molded this view?

JT: I was raised in a family with a lot of very strong female characters. As a result, I think that’s really shaped the way that I view gender. I wasn’t raised in a family where the male did everything or anything like that. My parents are very egalitarian. I think that has kind of shaped me into a, as I like to joke, a strong independent women—the Olivia Pope of it all. I really value that. I think women are awesome and that they are very often sold short on a global sense. I look to characters like Malala, Emma Watson, who have taken a stand in favor of equality and for females. I don’t think we can make that change without male allies.

RV: You talked about going to private school. What challenges have you faced during your time in school?

JT: One of the biggest challenges I’ve faced is more so with identity. I was raised in an African American family and both of my parents very much look visibly black. In my life people haven’t really known what I am. That’s kind of put me in an advantage in certain settings but also a disadvantage because you never really fit with one or the other. People often times think that I have one white parent when really it’s just that I’m very fair skinned. I think that’s really shaped who I am. It’s a different challenge. I’ve been very blessed and very fortunate to have the experiences I have, like studying abroad and coming this far away to school with out of state tuition. I would definitely point to [my identity] more so as my challenge in just being able to find people that I felt comfortable with based on my identity and how I identify and how they accept me. Because you can identify as something all day and night but if you are not treated that way you’re not going to be happy.

RV: How do you identify? Do you identify as African American?

JT: Yes, absolutely, and that really surprises people. Even the other day I had to get fingerprinted to work at school and the older black man just looked at me and didn’t even ask me, he just put it on my fingerprinting sheet, like race and eye color. So I think it’s little things like that, where it shouldn’t bother me, but it does because it affirms the fact that I’m not visibly put into one category or another. I’m sure that some people who are visibly African American would say, “Well that’s nice, because you might not be treated a certain way because of that.” I understand that there’s nuance there. That’s definitely a challenge that I’ve come to terms—I wouldn’t say that—come to realize time and time again. Starting in middle school kids would say things like, “Oh well if you’re black, you should be really good at basketball.” My family is one of maybe four black families in Holliston; it’s very homogeneous. Always being in those kinds of circles, and then coming [to William & Mary] even sometimes not being perceived by people who are in the black community as [being black] and being called things like an Oreo, or a reverse Oreo I guess.

RV: What have been some of the easier times?

JT: I would definitely say working with people. I would say during my time in college I’ve been able to develop an identity that is very congruent with my beliefs and people know where I am; I find that that’s put me at ease in being a senior. I think that’s one of the really nice things about getting older on a college campus. You become very congruent with your character and your identity, and that can be a weight lifted.

But also writing, I love to write critically about the world around us. I think I’ve really been supported in that here; by certain professors, by certain mentors that I’ve worked with, internships and things like that; just people seeing something in me that I didn’t necessarily see in myself.

RV: What are you studying? This can go beyond major/minor and go into broader educational interests.

JT: I made a self-design major, it’s called Social Justice and Advocacy. I have a Management and Organizational Leadership Minor in the Business School. My major is made up of Sociology, Government, Africana Studies, History, Education, Public Policy classes. It’s really kind of allowed me to chart my own path at William & Mary. It’s probably the best thing I’ve done here, honestly. I finished my major spring of junior year, and I’ve been able to take what I want this year. That speaks to my areas of interest: social activism, but also learning about oppressed populations, and structural racism, structural inequality across the board. I wish I had taken more classes on gender. I took one class; I took women in leadership, and we talked about how gender impacts people in corporate America and in life in general.

I focused a lot on Africana Studies. I think those speak to how I’ve been able to bring together who I am slash who I want to be academically, personally, professionally. I think that carries into what I want to do with my life and what I’m interested in. I’m interested in education and criminal justice reform, understanding that poor education often times leads people right into the criminal justice system. I really want to be a long time advocate for those kinds of issues. Like I said I’m pro-public school. Next year I’ll be teaching elementary school in Baltimore, and I’ll be getting my Masters. Hopefully I’ll be doing that for about 3 to 5 years and then I would love to go get my law degree and advocate on a different level.

RV: Why is higher education important to you?

JT: Honestly, and this is such a marker of privilege, but it was never a question if I was going to go to college. I’m in a family where my grandparents went to college, my parents, everyone. I also think that’s very much a product of where I’m from in Massachusetts. Massachusetts has a lot of stereotypes and that is definitely one of them; very well educated pockets. I hail from one. My family went to very good schools, so again, it was never a question of if I would go, it was a “where are you going to end up and what would be the best fit.” It’s important to me personally because I think that in this day and age, it’s virtually impossible to get a job that will provide you with gainful employment, so [therefore impossible to have] a living wage where you could send your own kids to college one day, without a college education. I think more and more those kind of jobs have been shipped overseas for various reasons, and so politically I very much align with these ideals of making college more affordable because it almost is required. I would say like sixty years ago or so you could get a job and live comfortably off a high school degree. But in the rise of globalism that’s no longer so much of a thing, and our jobs are being shipped overseas so you now need more higher education to be able to support a family and sustain that lifestyle. I’m definitely an advocate for raising minimum wages for people that are able to get an undergraduate degree, I think we also need to be increasing access and funding and decreasing cost and just making it more accessible to people across the board.

I very much believe that education is a means of transcending socioeconomic limitations. I think that without that you’re not going to be able to do much. It puts people where we can be a lot more mobile, whether that’s residentially, socioeconomically, [and] politically.

RV: Something that you hear a lot in the media is that the black woman is the most oppressed woman in the country. Do identify with that statement?

JT: I guess that would definitely tie back to what I said originally. I’m not always identified as [a black woman]. That kind of creates a little bit of nuance in my own life story because I can’t always necessarily say that [when] I walk into a room and I’m treated a certain way because people think that I’m black. I know, per life experience, that when I’m with my boyfriend or my dad, or anyone like that who are visibly black, I am definitely treated differently, or we are treated differently. I think that people are more aware [of us]. My dad has gotten pulled over many times. Even in [the library] a couple of years ago [my boyfriend and I] were studying for finals one day and this one officer kept coming up to us and telling us to quiet down, and no one else. I think that that’s where you sometimes have these conversations where if [a white friend] were sitting with me instead, they might not have instantly thought that was weird, but [I did].

I think that black women are put in quite difficult situations a lot of times on lots of different levels.  One of the most frustrating things these days is the whole concept of white feminism, and how it really lacks nuance. One of my favorite examples is in the show Girls, which I’m obsessed with—I love that show. I read the book Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay. I love it, and she talks about how shows [like Girls] have a lot of opportunity, because Lena Dunham claims to be one of the best champions of feminism, and goes out of her way to advance those missions and ideals, but it’s very much lacking people of color and that kind of intersectionality.

I think that Lemonade is so important, and I get frustrated when I hear about Piers Morgan, and people being very critical of Beyoncé and her production of Lemonade. I think that speaks to this ideal, that I’ve talked a lot about in some of my classes, that the affirmation of blackness is somehow the defamation of whiteness, it’s like a zero sum game, you can’t have one without the other or you can’t have them both. I definitely think that’s important.. One of the things we talked about in my Africana Studies class recently was how the Black Lives Matter movement has predominantly focused on black men and police brutality. All the while we’ve had lots of black women dying in police custody, and they have not had as much coverage. We’ve had Sandra Bland, yes, but she’s only one, and there are so many more. It speaks to this sense of invisibility, which is really unfortunate. Black men are so scrutinized that a lot of times it is about protecting the black man, protecting your son, your husband, father, from the world outside. But I think in that protection, black women are often forgotten. It’s very important to advocate for policy that will change that. I very much, in moving to Baltimore, am looking forward to getting involved in community organizing. From what I know so far it is very much led by strong black women. I’ve met some of them and it blows my mind how strong they are and how much they resemble characters from the Civil Rights movement that I’ve studied.

RV: You say you don’t appear as a black woman on the outside. Have you ever felt any challenges whether because you were black, a woman, or both? Or, on the flipside, have you felt particularly encouraged as a minority?

JT: I would say I really have [felt encouraged]. I feel that at William & Mary I have made a conscious effort to find professors of color with similar interests, and I think that in that regard I have made this bubble of my own. I know some of my friends who,  [like my friend] in the physics department, cannot do that same thing at all. I think they only have one professor of color in the physics department. I’ve been able to make this fake bubble around myself and pursue what I’m interested in based on faculty that I know will support me, and I know they see a little bit of their daughters in myself. I definitely think it’s been something to my advantage.

I, regardless of the way I’m perceived, have different perspectives. Going into my Baltimore classroom next year, I’m definitely going to be received differently than a cute white blonde girl, even if I’m not necessarily received as one of their own. People often are trying to figure out what it is that I am for a second. I’ve received certain advantages, and I understand that that is steeped in colorism. I wouldn’t necessarily feel certain advantages if I were darker skinned. I might feel in certain arenas, in certain classes, more of that discrimination, but I think that because I am sort of ambiguous and people don’t know where to put me I’m able to use that as social capital. I guess it’s opportunistic of me but let’s call it a survival mechanism.

RV: What are your overall views of education in the United States?

JT: I think the education system in the US is very outdated. The way we approach it is very reminiscent of the Baby Boomer era, when it was very utilitarian. Even this weekend, on Friday I was in a first grade math and science classroom, predominantly, like, 98% black school with a white teacher, a very good teacher. They respected and loved her. But I’m just sitting there thinking to myself, this is so weird, like these kids are what, seven? And they’re sitting in their desks and they’re supposed to be immobile. Then, when they’re done with their work, they tell them to put their heads down so the teacher knows they’re done with their work. It’s just so peculiar to me if you look at our education system as a sociologist, like what the hell is happening. Why aren’t we telling them to get up and move around? I understand the practical reasons why, but I just think that little things like that are very outdated.

If you look at cutting edge companies like Google and Facebook, who are kind of turning corporate America on their ear with not only their policies but also their corporate culture. They’re the cutting edge of what we could be, and they have the flexibility to do that because they’re the private sector.  Public sector is always millions of years behind. But, I think unfortunately, as an advocate for public education, that’s one of the biggest issues. In a charter school, hell I could start a charter school five years from now and do whatever I want. They could have bouncy balls instead of chairs. They could do whatever. But I’m not going to make broad-based change; I’m going to have this one charter school. And when you talk about schools like KIPP, we’re still talking lottery systems, very small fractions; charter schools are so controversial in themselves.

I also think that our education system is very racialized. What a wonder it would be if all of a sudden we started funding schools on a socialist model. Ooo, that’s like a bad word.  I mean, just the simple fact that where you live determines how much money is given to your school. We’re talking property tax; literally how much your parents make determines what kind of education you have, and often times that’s connected to race. I think that that should not be okay anymore. When we talk about education in the United States and we talk about poverty, about politics, they’re very much intertwined. And I think often times because of the way our country has been run and because of the way that just now we’re starting to have more people of color in public office, that represents a key shift In perspectives, and also responsibilities to certain communities.

We talk about this a lot in my Africana Studies classes, how minorities are unfortunately more responsible for each other, because you’re pushing this one person through. We have Obama, and he’s got to carry all blacks on his back. That’s problematic. But he shares that perspective with us that no other president has had. He, when Trayvon Martin was killed, he said, “That could have been me or my son.” No other president could have said that. I think that that’s really important.

When we talk about education reform, I think we need to talk about poverty and politics because you’re not going to see changes, unfortunately, until they start impacting middle class white people. And I think that issues like education reform we’re starting to see changes, but we still have issues with funding because everything is connected to property taxes. We still have issues with representation because our school systems are so steeped in bureaucracy—it’s disgusting—which is another reason why people are such advocates for charter schools.

Unfortunately, I think that’s where I get a little jaded. I very much am excited and honored to work with and in school systems, and hopefully enact change at least in disciplinary procedures, because I think that really ruins peoples’ lives. When you’re in school and you’re a high schooler, and you’re interacting with the criminal justice system. But, at the same time, we’re not going to see changes in education until we see changes in gerrymandering, changes in the way that we finance our school systems. How crazy would it be if all of the tax dollars, from all of Virginia, were put into one pot, and split based on population rather than what each district makes. It’s not going to happen of course, because the people in politics are very much in bed with the people who have the most money.

Education, like I’ve said, education is intertwined with all other issues, like poverty, and politics. Until we can either accept that and operate within that space, or completely deny it and shift to an era where we’re operating like charter schools and there’s no bureaucracy, which will essentially never happen, we’re going to continue to see these types of issues. Yeah you might see exceptions happen, like Obama, or some kids coming out of urban schools and becoming principals and CEOs. It’s an issue because you’re going to have people who don’t understand the nuance, who see that and go “Oh, this system isn’t rigged, it’s not racist! We have a black president, we have all of these people of color in these positions of power, so it’s their fault in these poor schools and these poor neighborhoods, it’s their fault for not being able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” That’s problematic. Until we can get through that, I don’t really see much changing, unfortunately.

On a large scale we still have a long way to go. I think funding structure would be one of the biggest [things to change], and just poverty alleviation. You could fund the hell out of an urban school. You could give them iPads, the best teachers in the world; but if they’re still going home and not being able to eat a good meal, their parents are addicted to drugs, and their community is poverty-ridden, there’s only so much a school can do. At the end of the day they have to go home. If you could kind of match those kinds of things and match a school with really strong programs and really strong wrap-around services, but also have economic services for the parents; that would be really cool. That would be where you’d start to see changes. Parents aren’t going to be able to push them through if they aren’t able to support the family.

RV: What do you think of girls’ education in the United States?

JT: I think that there is an interesting paradox in girls’ education. More and more teachers are becoming men, but I think for a long time women have been treated like, “Oh, you can become a teacher until you get pregnant and then you can be a mom.” Schools really need to support girls against outside pressures, [such as] really good sex education and really good contraceptive education. That’s a huge issue that girls are impacted with more than boys. You get pregnant in a lot of schools and you can’t go to school anymore, let alone how uncomfortable that would be, but they literally won’t let you go to school.

[Also] having more jobs for women specifically, instilling in women that you can still be a CEO, you can be whatever you want to be in a real way. A lot of the work I’ve been doing in college I’ve been working with little kids at the Head Start program. They’re four, five, and six [years old], and they’ll tell you, “I’m going to be an astronaut, I’m going to be a veterinarian, I’m going to be a doctor.” And somewhere along the way, [they] lose that. The Moynihan Report of the 1960s put a lot of pressure on black women in particular talking about how the lack of black men in the family is the reason why African Americans are poor, and essentially saying that men are the only way to make it. I think that having women’s groups, [is a way to] empower women in an equitable way. It was never strange for girls, where I grew up, for girls to play sports or be smart, be educated. It was normalized. One of the teachers I shadowed on Friday introduced me to the class and said, “Don’t go over to her and say, ‘you’re really pretty, can I play with your hair?’ talk to her about school, and talk to her about what we’re learning.” I think if you can instill those values in girls, they’re really important. Some schools that I’ve studied have groups for girls at risk; girls with issues at home, issues with conflict resolution, etcetera. One school in Brooklyn had a group of girls who worked with a social worker once or twice a week to talk through things. Having that is really important to help girls develop self-efficacy, especially in the late middle school years. In education, it’s important to be there and be empathetic to issues girls specifically face.

Thank you to Jill for being interviewed for this post. Check back in next Tuesday for another topic on girls’ education in the United States!

Jill Turner

Jill Turner

Redefining the Norm: An Interview with Yussre ElBardicy

By GIRLWITHABOOK Intern, Rosie Vita

This week’s interview is with Yussre ElBardicy. Yussre recently graduated from the College of William & Mary with a degree in Math and a minor in Arabic. Yussre was born and raised in Northern Virginia, the daughter of Egyptian immigrants. At William & Mary, Yussre was involved with the Muslim Student Association, Alma Mater Productions (AMP), and Student Assembly. Recently she moved to Madison, Wisconsin to begin her first job out of college.

RV: What are you studying? This can go beyond major and minor and into broader educational interests.

YE: I’m a Math major and an Arabic minor. We go back to Egypt a lot. The past couple trips I’ve gone alone. My mom has been there for a bit working. So when I was there in 2013 that was when Egypt had its big coup. I got really emotionally invested in that. I mean I was always kind of following Middle Eastern politics, but that made me really start following it. I started to look for ways that I could combine politics but also math. That kind of got me interested in social sciences. I joined the SNAPP (Social Networks and Political Psychology) lab [at William & Mary] and I did a summer research project on it and almost did an honors thesis on it. I’m very interested in the trajectory Egypt has taken and I’ve also followed Syria more closely as well.

RV: How do you think having two college-educated parents has affected you?

YE: Education was always a priority growing up. It was the thing that I was the most proud of growing up because it was the thing I got the most affirmation from. Not just grades, but for them, it was the thing that they were most proud of me for. Doing well in school and me loving reading, they were like ‘that’s awesome!’

RV: How has being a Muslim affected you views on education? How has your religion, and growing up in the current political climate, had an affect on the way you see your role in education?

YE: There’s this saying of the Prophet that says “Seek knowledge even if it takes you as far as China.” The religion says that you need to be educated, and so from a religious perspective it is really important. My dad would always tell me that it’s not just religious education that you need, but [you also need] knowledge of the sciences and knowledge of the faith, you can’t really have one without the other. It never like I had to balance the two, they went hand in hand.

In terms of the current political climate, sometimes it feels like Muslims have to prove themselves, which sucks. We had this conversation in MSA, how anytime anything happens, we all get phone calls from our parents where [they say] “okay, now lay low, don’t say anything, you don’t want anyone to think that you were acting poorly, etc. etc. try not to talk about anything, just keep your head low and it’ll blow over.” But we say we can’t not talk about this. Luckily my parents know I just don’t know how to shut up. I’m always discussing things. But on the other hand, [my friend] says that his dad says “don’t talk about anything, keep your head down, study hard and get out of there.” There’s this pressure to study hard, work hard, and fulfill this American Dream, and that’s your way of proving yourself, but at the end of the day I’m getting my education for myself, not for anyone else.

RV: You’re very involved on campus. Why has that been important to you?

YE: It makes me feel like I’m actually doing something important. Especially as a math major, there’s only so much I can really do for society. But there is a sense of a need to do something for others. I really think that with anything you’re trying to do you need to know the problem you’re trying to address, what your role is in it, what your limitation are given your background or privilege, and the only way you can really know all that is to be educated. Especially seeing my extended family in Egypt not being afforded the same privileges that I am, sometimes it’s a sense of ‘”Well why me? Why were my parents the ones that ended up moving to the states?’ What am I going to do to give back in some sense?

RV: As a girl in the education system in Egypt, do you think your prospects would have been different than they are in America?

YE: Education is pretty equal access to men and women. Where the disadvantage to women comes in is the general issue of harassment, which comes all the time on the streets, but also from professors and teachers. I get that here in a very different regard than I would in Egypt. I went through all of high school liking math, and I mostly had female math teachers, but then William & Mary is only where I saw the intersectionality of sexism and xenophobia to women in STEM.

RV: Can you talk more about that?

YE: Yeah, so honestly, high school was great for math. I had great math teachers; I’m still in contact with two of them. I never was really aware of the “math is for men” mindset that other people have. And then I got here, with mostly male professors, which is fine, I didn’t really think twice about it. Until, well I have a couple of examples. Looking back at freshman year, I raised my hand a lot in class. And then by sophomore year, I had professors who made me less sure of myself. There was this one instance where this guy in my class kept trying to answer this question, and he kept saying it wrong. The more he said the wrong answer, the more I was sure that I was right. So I finally raised my hand and I said it, and it was the right answer. And the guy was like “oh yeah I was going to say that next.” And the professor said “haha [sic] the girl beat you.” He knows my name. I’d been to his office. He knows my name. He’d pass back papers, he knows me name, and yet I was just “the girl.”

And then another instance, I had a professor and I was sitting in his office. We were talking for a while, and the conversation was fine; we were talking about politics and math. It felt like a great conversation. And then he said, “So you’ve been in the United States for a while.” And I was like, “Yeah, I was born and raised here.” And he said, “Yeah you almost sound like an ordinary average American.” And I said, “Well what doesn’t make me ordinary or average?” And he just laughed, and said, “Oh, it’s the shoes.” I was wearing regular boots.  

I’ve had some really great math professors, but those instances are going to stay with me.

RV: Does that affect your self-confidence within your major?

YE: Yes. I never really though it would. I considered myself so resilient, but it does eat away at you, especially when someone is constantly questioning your identity and you feel like you have to prove something. I just want to focus on school for once, not whether or not I’m American.

RV: Do you ever feel pressures that you have to represent women or Muslims, and that if you fail you’re somehow letting others down?

YE: Luckily there were always other women in the class, so I’m not alone, but in terms of being a Muslim I kind of represent the community. I know I don’t have to, but sometimes I can’t shake away the feelings. So there is pressure. But sometimes it’s the opposite. I have a bunch of nieces and nephews, and I’ll ask them, “What’s your favorite subject?” and if they say science or math, I’m [very excited]. I was babysitting once and I was like, “Let’s learn derivatives!” They could do a couple!

RV: You’ve mentioned intersectionality of sexism and xenophobia. What, if any, xenophobia have you experienced?

YE: There are always a few micro-aggressions. A lot of it hasn’t been to my face. I mostly feel safe on campus. Sometimes if I’m walking around Williamsburg I start getting looks, outside of the campus community. One of my good friends is also a Muslim hijabi, and she saw a car with a “Make America Great Again” sticker, and she said she wanted to run.

There was stuff in high school, although high school wasn’t really that bad. I started wearing scarves freshman year of high school. There was a guy who knew why I was wearing it; we live in a diverse area. He knows I’m a Muslim. He looked at me with a smug face and asked, “So do you have cancer or something?” It’s these things where I don’t know if you’re trying to give me an insult or just make me uncomfortable. I really haven’t had it bad compared to other people at all. It’s scary when I see people I know having horrible things done to them.

RV: You mentioned when things happen politically involving Muslims, and your parents call and tell you to keep you head low. Do you ever feel scared being a Muslim woman, and a publicly Muslim woman as your wear a hijab?

YE: On campus not so much. Sometimes I won’t go to the grocery store at night, if it’s a day or two after something has happened. Your guard is up. Or you have the feeling that you need to smile at everyone to prove you’re not a bigger threat. I’m not as scared as my parents are. Obviously my parents are going to be more scared for me than I am for myself. I know that here I’m in a much safer place than if I were in the Deep South.

RV: What kind of responses have you had as a part of the Muslim Student Association?

YE: One thing that really shook me in my time here was the Chapel Hill Shooting. We held a vigil for that, but some people didn’t feel comfortable going. A lot of times you’ll hear the notion of don’t congregate; you’re a big target.

One really awesome thing about William & Mary, that I’ve noticed just from visiting other schools, is that in general we have a culture of organizations working together. The MSA and black activists on campus have worked together. We have black Muslims too, and realizing the intersectionality of the struggles, that we don’t exist in a vacuum. We went to this inter-MSA [conference] of Virginia MSAs. We realized that they all kind of just served themselves, whereas our events are for the larger campus, almost more in terms of education. It’s not that we take super political stances, but more so that we’re not passive.

RV: What are your hopes for the future?

YE: I used to somewhat naively hope that the more Muslims people meet, the more they’ll realize that we’re just like everyone else and that’ll it’ll dissipate. There was one student who I kind of considered a friend. I knew he was conservative but I didn’t think that had any affect on how he felt about me. Then he wrote this article that basically had me sobbing. Even within it there was a headline that said “a culture antithetical to American values.” It was so obviously written from an orientalist standpoint, where when he was saying things I couldn’t tell if he was talking about Muslims, or Syrians specifically, or Arabs. Those are three overlapping groups, but they’re not the same by any means. You have Syrians who are not Muslims, or Arabs who are not Muslims, or Muslims who are not Arabs, or Syrians who are not Arabs or Muslims. It blew my mind that somebody I knew could have written that. And even in the comments, because he posted the article on Facebook, somebody asked, “So do you feel threatened?” and he said, “No, not by those who I surround myself with, but if thousands of migrants were resettled near me, then yes I would feel threatened.” So I think, well great, I don’t threaten you. So even though you’ve met me and countless other Muslims, you’re going to see me as the outlier, and not the norm, and extend that to the larger community. People just don’t get it. His article is so full of things that just weren’t true. [He had] a view of the Middle East as this ultra conservative place. There was a quote that said, “Walk around scantily clad in the Middle East and you’re basically inviting sex.” I think, have you been to Egypt? Lebanon? Half of these countries where that’s not true. Yes, harassment happens, but that’s not a result of the religion, and it happens in America too.

RV: What are the problems you see within the American education system? Girls’ education? What do you think we as a society can do to improve?

YE: I think that equal opportunity is so important. I think it’s a lot better than other places, but it’s definitely not equal. I know I’m privileged as person living in America instead of Egypt, but even looking at a person who lives in Fairfax County versus other parts of Virginia, I was afforded so many privileges. I didn’t pay for AP tests, my school was so well resourced, and I never had to worry about a wall crumbling down or sharing a classroom with fifty students. I had specialized attention. I had a very safe education environment, which not everyone has. I took an American history class this semester, and we talked about education and urban education. I didn’t even realize all of these things, even the lunches people get. If you can’t get a decent meal, how are you supposed to focus?

In terms of women specifically, I had a great K-12 experience, where I didn’t feel different as a girl. At the same time, I think there’s probably a lot of stuff I didn’t notice. I think the conditioning is still somewhat there. That’s why I’m always encouraging my nieces to [think that] math is awesome! I think it’s important to make it clear that you can do whatever you want. That’s another thing I’ve noticed. Women can be math teachers, but then academia is almost reserved for men. We just don’t see as many [women].

RV: What do you think we can do to change that?

YE: It needs to be a culture shift. It was really great for me to have really supportive teachers K-12, and if I hadn’t I don’t know if I’d be a math major. There needs to be that support [in the classroom] and at home, too. My parents never differentiated between me, my sister, and my brothers in terms of what was the right thing to go into for our education.

Thank you to Yussre for being interviewed for this post. Check back in next Tuesday for another topic on girls’ education in the United States!

Yussre ElBardicy

The Merit of All-Women’s Institutions

By GIRLWITHABOOK intern, Rosie Vita

All-girls’ schools and women’s colleges have been the center of debate since their founding. Single-sex, or single-gender education, where male and female students are separated for instruction, has existed for hundreds of years. Today, with the commonness of co-ed schools and universities, single-sex schools are often debated with fierce supporters and opponents. Why, then, are single-sex education systems gaining popularity, and what are the potential benefits to young girls and women?

To gain more insight, I reached out to Shannon Caietti, a graduate of an all-girls’ Catholic high school and current student at the College of William & Mary. I also spoke with Anna Valentine, who attended Smith College, a women’s college in Massachusetts and one of the Seven Sisters. Both women have experience attending co-ed and single-sex schools, as Shannon currently attends a co-ed university, and Anna attended co-ed schools up until Smith and a co-ed medical school.

One of my first questions is why they chose to attend a single-sex school in the first place. According to Anna, “The campus was full of confident, smart, driven women who all seemed to have a different energy about them than I’d noticed at any of the co-ed colleges I’d visited.”* Her affirmation of the positive role models young women can find within women’s schools and colleges is one of the benefits proponents of the system celebrate. Similarly, Shannon said the students she witnessed influenced her choice. “I remember touring the school and observing a class where girls were speaking up, offering insight, and unapologetically being themselves in the classroom,” she said. Both women emphasized the positive effect of seeing their female peers actively engaging in the classroom as reasons they chose their single-sex schools, and a reason that all-girls’ schools are touted as empowering to women.

Additionally, supporters argue that without males in the classroom, the needs of female students are more directly met. Studies conducted by the American Association of University Women show that in co-ed classrooms, girls are far less likely to participate in classroom discussions than their male counterparts, and that African-American girls are even less likely than their white classmates to participate, or even be called on. “I do think that being surrounded by so many incredible young women in such a nurturing academic environment enhanced that drive in me in a way it wouldn’t have been at a co-ed school,” said Anna. “I think a real benefit of an all-girls school or women’s college is creating an environment where subconscious institutionalized sexism is largely taken out of the picture. I think a lot of well-meaning professors and administrators (especially male) tend to favor men in co-ed environments because it’s what our American culture teaches, not because they really value men more than women. When you enter an environment where professors have chosen to teach at a single-sex school, there’s an extra level of awareness and encouragement of young women that’s sometimes missing from co-ed schools. Having studied in a STEM field (I have a BA in Chemistry), I can be sure that this was even more important for my educational trajectory.”*

Beyond the classroom, what are the benefits of single-sex education? Some critics argue that educating students with only their own sex isn’t preparing them for the real world, where men and women must work together. Anna disagrees; “If you educate a young woman on a campus where every leadership position is held by a woman, every academic award is received by a woman, every professor is there because they value educating women – that young woman will enter the ‘real world’ never questioning if a job or other position is one she can or should have, because the example has been set that women can do anything.”* In the same note, Shannon also said that, “Everywhere I looked whether it was teachers, student government, administration, or sports nearly every position of leadership was held by a woman. This is something you won’t get just anywhere. There’s something powerful in seeing a woman in a position of authority especially for young high school women.” Both women transitioned to other co-ed institutions after their time spent at their single-sex schools, which Shannon claims was not only easy for her, but that she felt particularly empowered to do so thanks to her all-girls’ education.

It’s safe to say that at least according to these two former students of the single-sex track; all-women’s schools and universities have merit. Despite conflicting evidence found in studies for quantifiable evidence on the benefits, the confidence and real-world skills acquired at these institutions are immeasurable. One benefit that Anna pointed out to me is the progressive thinking and diverse make-up of the student body and administration. “The Seven Sisters, for example, (of which Smith College is one) were founded as sister schools to the Ivy League universities at a time when women weren’t provided the same educational opportunities as men. This progressive thought has continued on women’s college campuses today such that these schools see much more racial and economic diversity than their co-ed counterparts, which I think is an important part of the educational experience.”* In fact, women’s colleges have some of the highest rates of students of color in the country, and outrank most co-ed schools.

And at the end of the day, it’s almost always a choice, and one that both of my interview subjects recommend potential students consider. Anna recommends that every female high school student consider a women’s college in their college search. Shannon also recommends all-girls’ high schools, and notes the positive impact it’s had on her college career. “It allowed me to enter college knowing what I wanted to get out of it and to not be afraid to be unapologetically myself no matter the situation…I entered my first college class as a freshman willing and ready to participate and learn and I can thank my all-girls school for that confidence,” she said. Despite the ongoing debates, all-girls’ schools and women’s colleges foster environments for empowered and engaged students to learn and grow, something that every educational institution strives to accomplish. With results like these, it’s no wonder that these schools continue to be popular and influential today.

*Note from Anna: In answering these questions, I’ve opted to use the pronouns she/her and speak of students at women’s colleges as female. This was merely due to my laziness and ease of flow for me linguistically in responding, for which I apologize. I am fully aware of and also value the presence of my trans, genderqueer, and other differently gendered classmates at my women’s college who added to my experience there.


Sources: How Schools Shortchange Girls. N.p.: AAUW, 1992. American Association University of Women. Web. <>.  


Eum, Jennifer. "Surprise: The Colleges That Aren't Mostly White Are Mostly Women." Forbes. 29 Mar. 2016: n. pag. Forbes. Web. <>.

Between Two Cultures: An Interview with Hailey Park

By GIRLWITHABOOK Intern, Rosie Vita

This week marks the first of an interview series on the Looking at Us blog.  I will be interviewing multiple women, including students and professionals, on their experiences and viewpoints on education, and more specifically girls’ education in the United States.

The first interview is with Hailey Park.  Hailey recently completed her sophomore year at the College of William & Mary, where she is double majoring in Math and Economics.  She was born and raised outside of Seoul, South Korea until she was 15; when she moved to America on her own to attend high school in Pennsylvania.  As well as her double major, Hailey is very involved on the William & Mary campus as part of a sorority, the sailing team, and a Christian fellowship.

RV: You grew up in Korea.  What is the educational system like in Korea?

HP: It depends a lot on if you go to a public school or private school.  I have experience going to both.  I mainly went to a private Christian school.  Generally I would say that it’s very strict in a lot of ways like study times and schedules.  The hours that you stay in school are pretty long.  If you go to a public high school you have a study hall time after you classes that is mandatory until 10 pm.  They take it very seriously. But if you go to private school it’s a different story.  It’s more similar to American high schools.  My experience in the public school was that you go to school very early and come home very late.  

RV: What are the educational expectations for Korean girls?  Are they similar or different to the expectations for boys?

HP: I think they’re pretty similar.  Maybe it’s just the environment that I grew up in, but girls are expected to do as well as guys; there’s no difference.

RV: What are your family’s expectations of you?

HP: They want me to work hard. They used to tell me when I was in middle school that I had to get good grades in order to succeed. You have to do well on this test and that test. But I think right now, I don’t want to say they let it go,  [but] I think their emphasis is on working hard. Like, if I get a bad grade, they’re fine with it so long as I did my best.

RV: You came to America in high school.  Can you tell me about that experience, such as how old you were, and how you made that decision.

HP: Before I came to America in high school, I lived in America in elementary school for a year.  We lived in Fairfax and I was 10. I had the best time of my life, here with my parents; I made a lot of friends.  I was really sad to leave and go back to Korea.  That’s when I learned most of English.  After I went back to Korea I always wanted to come back. I loved the environment, I loved the way people communicated, I loved the education.  It was a dream place for me to study and carry on with my life.  My parents said maybe I could go there for college.  But then I convinced them, and I came here when I was 15, going into 10th grade.  The school had an international coordinator to find host families, so I lived with a host family.  I lived with them until my graduation.  They consider me their daughter.  I love them so much; I don’t know how it worked out so great.  My other [international] friends had to change host families every year, but I didn’t. I got the best one.  They taught me how to drive, all that stuff. 

The first year I almost considered moving host families.  I was very stressed out; it was the worst year of my life so far.  I had just come to America, everything changed.  I didn’t see my parents, the food was different, I had to make new friends.  That was really hard. I missed my parents a lot. Once I made some friends and settled I got along with most host parents and everything was better.

RV: How has your relationship with your parents changed as you’ve been in America for so long at this point?

HP: I go home at least once a year, sometimes twice a year.  I talk to them about once a week.  Sophomore year I would Skype them every night.  Now I’m busy and talk to them once a week. It’s kind of sad but I feel like as I’m becoming more Americanized it’s becoming difficult to communicate culture here to them sometimes. I constantly feel like they have a lot to catch up to. If I explain sorority life, they don’t know what that means.  [My mom] has no clue what that means.  [Even when I explain it] she still doesn’t get it.  It’s hard to make my parents understand.  But they try.

RV: Do you ever feel caught between two cultures?  You lived your whole childhood in Korea and now you’ve lived your whole adult life so far and your late adolescent years here in the US.  Where do you feel more at home?

HP: I feel more at home here.  At the same time, I’m not 100% American.  I’m not 100% comfortable.  But I’m not 100% comfortable there.  If I speak English for an entire semester and talk to my parents once a week on the phone, I forget all of my Korean.  When I go back, I can’t talk.  My mom always says, “How do you not know this word?”  For example, I was trying to say to her “this was the best I could do.”  And I couldn’t think of that in Korean. Sometimes it’s very hard to communicate.  But I don’t feel 100% comfortable with English either.  Culturally I fit in more here.  A lot of my Korean friends tell me I just became an American.

RV: Going back to education. What have been your biggest challenges in the American school system?

HP: I think the biggest thing about the American education system is you consistently have to do well in order to [ultimately] do well.  You can’t slack off.  But I feel like in my experience with the Korean education system you can slack off and then do really well on the final and get a great grade.  My biggest challenge was learning how to keep up with my work and not slack off.  When I first came here [I was shocked to learn] that we had tests every week.  That was really new to me because that had never happened in Korea.

RV: You’re a math and econ double major, both of which are male-dominated. What are the challenges, if any, of being the gender minority in your majors? If there aren’t any, what are the perks?

HP: I think there are more perks, actually! People always tell me “this is a male dominated major, and you’re doing a great job.” When they say that it makes me feel good. I can do things that other people do. For example, this summer I’m taking a class here [William & Mary] on probability. I’m the only girl in the class. I feel like the professor will care about me more. They don’t see as many girls so I’m encouraged more as a girl.  I’m not intimidated by being the only girl. I like it.

RV: Why is getting a college education important to you?

HP: I feel like knowledge is everything in this world.  The more you know the better you are, and college is the place that provides that.  I always grew up in the environment where college is expected.  You go to high school, and then you go to college.  In Korea, which college you go to is everything, it determines everything.  It determines social status, even more so than in America.  It’s kind of sad, but it’s the truth.

RV: What do you think of the American education system?

HP: I think it’s very good.  As I mentioned before, one of [my] biggest challenges was I had to work consistently.  I think that’s a very good system.  I think that’s how you actually gain knowledge. Instead of “oh I have to memorize this,” short term memory and then forget everything—what’s the point of that? The environment here [in America] makes you actually learn better than the other system I’ve experienced.

RV: What do you think we can improve on?

HP: I don’t think it’s that necessary to divide up girls’ fields and guys’ fields.  If a girl is in this physics class, then she is, and vice versa.  What we can improve on is getting rid of the stereotypes that physics is only for guys and math is only for guys and gender studies [are] only for girls.  I think that will open up more perspectives with girls who want to study and major in a “guys’” field.  I think early education for parents is the answer.  Removing those stereotypes from a young age.

Thank you to Hailey for being interviewed for this post. Check back in next Tuesday for another topic on girls’ education in the United States!

Hailey Park

Hailey Park

Women in STEM: Where does the gender gap begin?

By GIRLWITHABOOK Intern, Rosie Vita

It’s one of the most talked about subjects when it comes to girls’ education in the United States, and a persistent reminder that the Glass Ceiling is not yet a story of old. While women have made strides in the last century, fifty years, even twenty years in terms of gender parity, the percentage of women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) career paths still hovers below 25% according to the U.S. Department of Education. Why does this gap between men and women exist?

Let’s start with this: it’s not because of their biology that women are unlikely to go into STEM. It’s not because they naturally prefer the humanities, that they aren’t interested, or that they are intellectually incapable of keeping up with their male counterparts. In fact, women and girls show an equal propensity to boys and men in STEM fields from a young age. According to the Department of Education, girls begin taking higher-level math classes earlier than boys. They’re also passing those classes at higher rates than boys. There is also almost complete gender parity in high school and Advanced Placement science and math classes. Women also are earning 41% of STEM PhDs—while not completely equal it’s still a lot higher than 25%. So then why does this gender parity that we’ve seen from elementary school through post-secondary education suddenly fly out the window when it comes to careers?

Looking back on my own educational career, it’s hard to pinpoint why I ended up straying away from the STEM fields. When I was very young I wanted to be an inventor, and my kindergarten yearbook states that my favorite subject was math. Somewhere along the way I lost that love of math and science and came to see it as a necessary evil. What changed for me? That’s a hard, if not impossible, question to answer. I showed an aptitude for language arts from a young age, and was always a strong reader and writer. By the time I entered high school my favorite subjects were English and History, and I while I was still in the advanced math and science classes I didn’t necessary excel at them. I’m very fortunate that I never had anyone tell me that because I’m a girl that I couldn’t study certain fields, but I did feel subtle discouragement from pursuing STEM more seriously despite always maintaining good grades in those classes. I remember feeling that because I wasn’t the top of the class and pulling perfect scores on the exams that they held no future for me. I always felt much more encouragement from my humanities teachers, and not so much from my science and math teachers. Once I entered my freshman year of college, I had completely ruled out those fields as possible career moves. Looking back I can’t separate my own aptitude and motivations from a possible lack of encouragement; the lines of separation are too hazy. This may be the same story for a lot of girls, making the answer to this question of women in STEM much more complicated to answer.

There are many ongoing debates about this and none are conclusive. Some argue that women are socialized from a young age to believe they cannot succeed in STEM fields, or that these fields are unsuitable for girls, and so focus their attentions to more “traditional” female subjects and career paths. Another explanation is that, thanks to traditional gender roles, women tend to choose careers that are more favorable to raising children—something that STEM fields aren’t known for. Others argue that there isn’t a problem—women just don’t like STEM (unfortunately for them, the numbers are not on their side). Never the less, it’s a problem with out a clear-cut answer, as shown through my own experience and many others, and therefore finding solutions will be more challenging.

That leaves us back where we started, with women still hovering below that 25% mark. Why should we care? Women are dropping out of STEM at some point between the educational track and their professional careers at alarming rates. Clearly there is a divide, and as a society we should be questioning: whom are we losing? What could these women have accomplished had they entered STEM jobs? If the answer is stereotypes and family planning, then these are issues that must be addressed. Not only must girls be supported and encouraged throughout their education, but women must also be supported in the workplace. Gender should not be an obstacle to success, whether that means encouragement in the classroom or the ability to have children without it ending your career. We never know who might hold the answer to our world’s biggest questions…and they may well be women.

Source: Gender Equity in Education: A Data Snapshot. U.S. Department of Education, 2012. Digital.


Looking At US

By GIRLWITHABOOK Intern, Rosie Vita

Welcome to the first post for GIRLWITHABOOK Movement’s new blog Looking at US, focusing entirely on girls’ education in the United States. Much of our coverage is focused internationally, and rightfully so, as women and girls throughout the world face many barriers to receiving an education. In order to really make a difference in girls’ education around the world, however, it’s important to take a step back and look at ourselves. The United States is one of the richest and post powerful countries in the world—but we are far from perfect. That’s the goal of this blog: to uncover the real stories and issues affecting girls in our educational system. The blog will be made up of topical articles on relevant issues affecting girls’ education in America, as well as interviews with female students and professionals who have been educated in our school and university system. 

Who’s the author? I’m Rosie Vita, the current social and digital media intern for GIRLWITHABOOK. I’m a junior at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, right across the street (literally!) from Colonial Williamsburg. I’ve been very privileged and fortunate in my life thus far. I have a supportive family who have encouraged me and financed my education, and I have felt encouragement from almost everyone I’ve encountered in my educational career. Many others, however, are not so lucky, and they’re not necessarily across an ocean; they’re right in our own backyard. That’s why I want to write this blog: to shine a light on issues and experiences happening in our own country, and to remind us of the progress we’ve made but that we have so much farther to go.

If this sounds interesting to you and you’d like to learn a little more about girls’ education, then check back here every Tuesday for the next couple of months to see a new topic or interview!

The author while studying abroad last year.&nbsp;

The author while studying abroad last year.