COLUMBIA — Late last year, the dean of MU's Trulaske College of Business asked a cluster of girls at Lange Middle School: "How many of you like to argue?"
All hands shot into the air.
"I like to argue, so guess what I did?" Joan Gabel continued. "I became a lawyer."
Gabel had been invited to talk to middle schoolers during an after-school program called Desire to Aspire, launched in the fall by MU student Stacy Stewart.
Stewart's dream was to help young girls build self-esteem, confidence and bright futures.
"It's a holistic mentoring program, and we really hit on a little bit of everything," she said.
About a dozen girls currently participate. They take dance classes, learn about future career paths and create goal boards that record their aspirations.
Stewart focuses on body image as well, given the ages of the girls in the program — most are 10 to 12 years old.
"At this age, there are a lot of unique distractions that their male counterparts may not experience, and sometimes that makes girls feel like they have less opportunities," Gabel said. "But programs like this help them see that they truly can make it and there is a lot out there waiting for them."
Encouraging college graduation is another key element of the program, as is acquiring social skills and courage. Stewart said she plans to take the girls to the Governor's Mansion in Jefferson City for tea, and self-defense classes are on her list.
"This program is really understanding, and Stacy teaches us better ways to deal with our problems," said Ania Chatman, 12.
"We have open conversations, and it's nice," she said.
Self-esteem and body image
Most of the girls were referred to the program by counselors who saw a need — stress, perhaps a behavior problem or lack of confidence.
"These girls desperately need this love," Stewart said. "So we avoid traditional one-on-one mentoring. I don't want the girls to feel abandoned or bad about themselves when a mentor can't be there."
Many of the girls struggle with media projections that don't remind them of their mothers, sisters, teachers or themselves.
"When you look in the media, do you see women that look like you?" asked Amina Simmons, another guest speaker. Simmons is an MU graduate student and the graduate assistant at the MU Women's Center.
The answer was a resounding "no" by every girl in the room.
Other struggles include insecurities about weight, skin color, femininity and hair.
"Everyone tells me my hair is too big, but I brush it every day," said McKenna Wells, 12.
Another big topic is boys.
McKenna remembered a trip to St. Louis to visit family. Tall, with long limbs and athletic ability, she looked forward to playing basketball with cousins and friends.
Instead she was greeted by boys telling her, "You're a girl, so you can't play basketball." She decided to play anyway.
Research published in 2011 in the Journal for Social Action in Counseling and Psychology looked at the influences boys have on girls' experiences.
The study noted: "While experiences of exclusion were the most common type of gender discrimination reported by the girls, they also indicated that their male peers would call them derogatory names."
It also addressed how girls lose confidence during early adolescence, while boys become more assertive and arrogant, even in dangerous ways. The paper advocates an intervention system for these girls to "increase their resiliency while helping them recognize and change the systems which impact their lives."
This is also an objective of Desire to Aspire.
"I just want these girls to have a sense of self efficacy — 'that "I can" attitude — and to know they don't have limitations the way they think they do and are told," Stewart said.
A safe space
Both frustrations and moments of great opportunity can be witnessed in conversations during an after-school session. One of the girls seems disinterested and chatters away while Gabel is speaking to the class.
Stewart, however, is quick to highlight the behavior when the girl demands silence so she can talk to her friends after the session.
"It isn't a good feeling when people talk over you, is it?" Stewart asks.
It is this back-and-forth, honest relationship that allows progress, she said.
"They should feel comfortable sharing but also being challenged to think beyond themselves," Simmons said. "They have so many great things to say, but nobody wants to listen."
While getting this group of girls to talk is easy, opening them up to difficult issues can be awkward. Desire to Aspire wants to become a safe space for them to discuss sensitive subjects.
During a game of "Happy, Crappy," Alexis Kennedy, 12, was the only girl with two happy highlights in her week instead of a happy one and a crappy one.
"I did great in my rehearsal, and I have a choir performance coming up," she shared with the group.
This "safe space" allows for conversations about other things, even violence. The pressure to prove themselves by fighting is a topic girls often raise during the sessions.
"I've learned that sometimes you have to do something that's not natural and avoid fighting and doing stuff back," said Anaiyah Garr, 11.
Many of the girls don't want to be seen as "weak" or disloyal to friends, a temptation that can land them to the principal's office. Many say they have tried to reduce the incidence of discipline problems because of Desire to Aspire.
"When you get older, people will be hungry for you to retaliate," said Alexis Johnson, who volunteers for the program. "But behind the scenes, they'll be so surprised that you were mature enough to walk away."
"No one will remember that you fought a lot and were tough in middle school. They'll remember that you didn't graduate the eighth grade," she added.
An idea is born
Stewart, who plans to finish school in May with degrees in sociology and psychology, was inspired to develop Desire to Aspire after working as a tutor with the Moving Ahead program. There, she was reminded of situations she endured as a girl.
"A lot of girls confided in me there, and I definitely had some of those emotions when I was their age," Stewart said. "Obviously, programs like this are needed."
She said she knows how it feels when parents get divorced and there isn't enough food in the house.
"I've been through some of these things, too," she said.
Stewart began with a mission and a plan, and little else. She even remembers agonizing over the name.
"My friends kept telling me to just let it happen naturally, and they were so right," Stewart said. One day, she said, the name for her program "literally hit like an epiphany."
Desire to Aspire was launched.
The right school for the future
Stewart began to contact schools in February, hoping for responses. She was thankful when she heard back from several schools, ultimately deciding that Lange would be best for kick-starting her idea.
"I couldn't have asked for a better school to start my program off in. They are so helpful and supportive," Stewart said.
She wants to expand into other schools, encouraging more girls to embrace possibilities.
"I want every girl in Columbia, the nation and the world to know that the options abound for them," she said.
"Just because their parents didn't go to college doesn't mean they can't. They can do it; they just have to fight for it."
Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.