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Girls Learn Success in Education, Life from ‘Sisters’

Girls who attended the Sister-to-Sister event on May 1 at Yavapai College (YC) said they heard stories of struggle and inspiration, learned about the benefits of higher education as they pursued careers, and enjoyed the camaraderie. Sister-to-Sister is a mentorship program that provides high school girls with support from professional women. The half-day workshop was co-sponsored by the YC Educational Talent Search/TRIO Program (ETS/TRIO) and the local branch of the American Association of University Women (AAUW).

TRIO offers programs to motivate and support eligible students on their journey toward completing a college education. The U.S. Department of Education funds about 3,000 such programs across the country. The YC Sister-to-Sister partnership with AAUW coincides with the ETS/TRIO mission of supplying tools to help students learn about attending and succeeding in college. Volunteers from AAUW held round table career discussions with the 19 attendees from high schools in Chino Valley and Verde Valley.

Keynote speakers at this year’s event included Prescott Police Chief Debora Black and YC Dean of Computer Technologies and Instructional Support Stacey Hilton. YC students and graduates shared their initial impressions and insights about attending college, including episodes of harassment and belittlement.

Chief Black lamented about girls being conditioned from age six or seven to be polite, agreeable and helpful. She discussed overcoming those traits for career success. Her insights were reflected in student narratives, including the perspectives of former firefighter Aileen Casillas and aspiring pilot Jaqueline Beltran.

Casillas had been a firefighter during the Yarnell Hill tragedy five years ago and has since battled post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). She said she originally had only positive thoughts about firefighting and moved ahead with her chosen career path, certain she would succeed. Yet, ongoing harassment eventually undermined her confidence.

“It slowly erodes you,” Casillas explained. “It’s kind of like a frog in hot water. He doesn’t know [he’s in danger]. He doesn’t jump out. And by then, it’s too late.”

Casillas countered the negativity by speaking to people who knew her and appreciated her abilities, she said. She also focused on her children, although she was careful not to let them know what was happening. Before becoming a firefighter, Casillas had worked in the floral industry. She now operates Florian, a growing business named after the patron saint of firefighters.

Beltran, as a senior at Chino Valley High, was the first student in the aviation program in the Mountain Institute Joint Technical Education District to pass the Federal Aviation Administration’s written test for a pilot’s license. That goal evolved from seeing a plane she wanted to fly.

“Belittled because I was female, the only female in my class for the last four years,” Beltran said she endured ridicule about her youth, aviation expertise and fitness to be a pilot. She also was sexually harassed. Staying strong and not letting those encounters deter her, Beltran persevered. Her latest triumph is a scholarship for more flight instruction this fall in Bogota, Colombia.

Chief Black, one of 200 female police chiefs in the nation, said she “never set out to blaze trails, yet here I am and it’s a wonderful place to be.”

Growing up in an Illinois household with three brothers, Chief Black graduated high school and began college in social services. An elective in criminal justice “absolutely set me on fire,” she said.

Chief Black earned a two-year degree, and applied to become a police officer when eligible at age 21. None of the 14 agencies responded, she said, even for an interview. Moving to Arizona, she applied at the Glendale and Phoenix police departments. She was offered jobs with both, and chose the department not undergoing a harassment lawsuit. She joined the Phoenix Police Department in the early ‘80s.

One of 14 women in a large class at the police academy, Chief Black ultimately had been the last woman standing and “they tried like heck to get me to quit.” Finally, after incessant taunts from condescending male colleagues who expressed that she might get hurt or that she was only there to find a husband, Chief Black “had to set the record straight.” She adamantly declared: “I’m not leaving. Just let me do my job.”

On patrol, she discovered her natural ability to diffuse potentially dangerous situations by listening, conversing and calming citizens under stress. During her 30-year career, she has been the chief of two police departments: Phoenix and now Prescott.

Chief Black offers leadership agility to female professionals and students. Central to that dedication has been uncovering the cerebral, cultural and environmental influences that hold women back. Gender bias begins, she emphasized, because girls are raised to be humble, share credit and reflect positively on others.

Teachers’ evaluations for girls, for example, tout attributes such as “pleasant” and “nice,” while chastising conduct interpreted as aggressive. Boys, in contrast, are commended as “intelligent,” “talented” and “born leaders.” Girls who are asked to describe themselves choose passive words, while boys portray themselves as “talented, smart and good at math.”

Jaqueline Beltran (center), as a Chino Valley High School senior in 2015, became the first student at Mountain Institute Joint Technical Education District (MIJTED) to pass the written exam required by the Federal Aviation Administration as the initial step to earning a private pilot license. Pictured with her are Cheri Warner, a then adjunct instructor at Yavapai College’s Career and Technical Education Center (CTEC), and John Morgan, the college’s dean of career and technical education.

Girls’ conditioning makes them “too eager to be nice, to be helpful, to be agreeable,” Chief Black added, citing research using lemonade loaded with salt and served to children. Boys were vocal about the bad taste. Girls, in comparison, finished the lemonade, expressed appreciation and claimed the lemonade was good.

“Only when they were pushed, did the girls tell the truth,” Chief Black noted. When asked why they answered the way they did, the girls said that “they didn’t want to hurt feelings and did not want to be rude.”

Whatever happens career-wise, women perceive situations as worse than they are, she noted, while men view them as better. This extends to job ad responses, where men apply if they have 50 percent of the competencies demanded, but women only pursue at 100 percent.

Women put more pressure on themselves by working more hours, forgoing lunch, not playing golf, remaining wary of appearing weak and shouldering a significant fear of failing, Chief Black explained. They worry not only for themselves, but also about unintentionally proving that women cannot do the work of men.

Nevertheless, women have a head start because they are instinctively better at leadership through values, collaboration and cooperation, Chief Black said. Echoing the Casillas message, she explained that lack of confidence – not lack of competence – holds women back.

Sister-to-Sister coordinator Claudia Greenwood said some of the young women attending may be the first in their families to earn a degree. Since they also may not have role models at home or in their social circles, the program enables them to learn from women who attribute their career and life success to obtaining a university diploma.

Greenwood founded the Sister-to-Sister program in the 1980s while a professor at Ohio’s Kent State University. She heard Secretary of State Colin Powell speak about a U.S. government mandate establishing mentorship as an important component of non-profit and community-based education programs. Greenwood recalls Powell saying that “the most important thing to teenagers is to have mentors,” so she returned to campus and brought together her AAUW branch and Kent State officials to found a legacy.

Moving to Prescott in 2003, Greenwood saw the same mentorship need and pitched the concept to AAUW Prescott. The partnership with Yavapai College celebrated its tenth year in 2016.

“The goal is to encourage young females in the Quad Cities area toward high school graduation and going on to college,” she said. “Sister-to-Sister models for young women how a college education enriches their lives and expands their possibilities. The girls see that.”

Camp Verde High School sophomore Bianca Escobedo said she enjoyed interacting with others who had already been in her situation and could teach her how to go through the next few years.

“I wasn’t sure what was going to happen or who I was going to meet, but I was so happy I met the people I did,” she explained. “I really enjoyed hearing from such strong women. I would definitely recommend this program. I was so inspired by everyone there and left with such a positive outlook. I felt empowered.” QCBN

By Sue Marceau

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