Teach a girl, change the world

Success in school can make all the difference in a girl’s life, but overwhelming cultural, physical, and financial barriers keep many girls from gaining that advantage. We profile four alumnae who have had remarkable results improving access to education for young women from disadvantaged communities in Kenya, China, and northern California.

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By Jessica Langlois, MFA ’10

A year after retiring from teaching high school and several years after losing her husband to cancer, Margo Manin McAuliffe ’58 traveled to Naivasha, Kenya, a rural town on open, fertile land about 50 miles northwest of Nairobi. It was 2005, and she had volunteered to teach math to girls at a co-ed Catholic boarding school there.

Ever since she was a young girl herself, McAuliffe had known that she wanted to do something to leave the world better than she had found it, she says, her lively green eyes shining behind oval, wire-rimmed glasses. Providing education for girls in Kenya was a sure way to improve the circumstances of those young women dramatically. In Africa, educated girls face a reduced risk of HIV infection, are less vulnerable to exploitation and human trafficking, are less likely to marry at a young age, and raise children who are more likely to go to school themselves.

In any country, in fact, gender parity in education is critical; numerous studies show a direct correlation between women’s education levels and their quality of life, including their health status, economic standing, and political power. The United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative reports that 39 million girls globally are not enrolled in school, and that two-thirds of the world’s illiterate adults are women.

Like a number of other Mills graduates, McAuliffe is working to educate underserved girls in one of the world’s most economically and socially disadvantaged communities. Rosalyn Chen Koo ’51 was similarly motivated a decade ago, when she created the Spring Buds program, a 13-year plan to fund the education of 1,000 girls from isolated villages in western China. And closer to home, Lacy Asbill ’02 and Elana Metz ’03 established Girls Moving Forward, an organization that combines mentoring and tutoring to encourage the academic and emotional growth of K-12 girls from at-risk communities in Oakland and Watsonville.

Each of these four alumnae has been spurred to action by a shared commitment to using their skills and resources to advancing women through the power of education.

Margo McAuliffe. Above, the students at the dedication of St. Francis Xavier School for Girls.

A conducive climate for learning

After arriving in Naivasha, McAuliffe learned that the high school where she had planned to teach was phasing out girl students, with the intention of building a separate girls’ school. This change was a reaction to the co-ed school’s high rate of teen pregnancy—which carries a heavy stigma in Kenya. According to one regional nonprofit organization, 13,000 Kenyan girls leave school each year due to pregnancy, and nearly half of all young women have had a first child by age 19. Many girls who leave school pregnant risk ending up in prostitution.

Then there are those who can’t afford to go to school at all. Though Kenya introduced free primary education for all in 2003, continuing on through high school is very expensive for both boys and girls. “There’s a hope that if you have an education, you can get a job,” McAuliffe says. “No guarantees—just like here.” Girls who cannot afford high school are left with few options. Mostly, McAuliffe explains, they become “house help,” or end up in arranged marriages to men two or three times their age, doing hard labor on the farm and producing children.

McAuliffe also learned that the Naivasha community had donated a plot of land for building the separate girls’ school, which would be directed by the local Kikuyu priest, Father Daniel Kiriti. She realized, too, that by teaching math herself, she would be taking a job away from a well-trained local teacher, and came to conclude that her greatest result could be achieved by raising money to build the new school. So McAuliffe returned home to Menlo Park, California, and started sharing her experience with friends, who shared it with other friends. Her goal was to raise as much as $20,000 for the St. Francis Xavier School for Girls. She never thought she’d raise $1.3 million in just seven years.

McAuliffe’s foundation, Kenya Help, has little overhead and no paid positions, so all of the funds raised have gone to build the school and to pay tuition for the girls. In addition to classrooms, two science labs, a library, a computer lab, a multipurpose room, and dorms, the school has livestock and a garden so the students can cultivate their own food.

Anne Chantel, a student who appears in a short film on the Kenya Help website, speaks passionately about her education: “Why I love this school is that it has a conducive climate for enabling us to participate in our studies,” she says. “The teachers help us a lot.” Another student, Celia Bouquet, adds, “This school is improving our culture physically, mentally, and emotionally; it helps me as a student improve and become a better person in the future.”

At St. Francis Xavier, education extends beyond just the classroom. The girls often put on fashion shows, skits, and other performances to let loose and express themselves. The school also brings in speakers to hold workshops and lead discussions on topics including relationships, careers, and sex, which encourage the students to make responsible decisions and bolster their feelings of self-worth.

Both in her fundraising and in her summers tutoring at the school, McAuliffe frequently considers her position of relative privilege and recognizes the limitations of her status as a foreigner. “I realize that it’s not my country or my culture, and it’s not my school,” says McAuliffe, who leaves the planning to Father Kiriti. McAuliffe particularly struggles with some disciplinary policies, but maintains an open conversation with school leaders about the ineffectiveness of physical punishment and the anger it breeds—and hopes her continued presentation of alternatives is having an effect.

All of a sudden you are special

Rosalyn “Roz” Koo is a petite woman with a quick sense of humor; she is never at a loss for words, or at a loss for something sweet to offer visitors. Koo came to Mills from an elite all-girls school in Shanghai in the late 1940s, but her mother had always encouraged her to question the inequities women faced in China and globally. With this background, Koo knew she wanted to serve underprivileged women, but determined that she had to work and train herself before she could help anyone else.

In 1949, at the onset of the Chinese civil war, Koo’s family moved to Taiwan. “I searched my soul and decided I would stay here in the US,” she says.

After several decades working in education and philanthropy, both in the US and in conjunction with government agencies in China, Koo was ready, at age 72, to start a major project. But she had one rule: she would run things her own way. In her four decades of organizing, Koo came to understand that the success of a project relies on three “circles” of factors: a strong need for change, a dedicated interest in the project, and the demonstrated capability of the organizer. “When the three circles meet in the middle,” Koo says, “That’s when you can get things done.”

She sought out Wang Hong, vice chair of the All-China Women’s Federation in Shaanxi Province, to help her bring a foundational education to the “poorest of the poor” girls in the region. Shaanxi, home to the famous Terracotta Army and once an important dynastic province, is a mountainous region with dry soil and barely accessible transportation. The options for poor girls there are similar to those of the girls in Naivasha. The United Nations Girls Education Initiative reports, “An estimated two thirds of China’s school-age children who are not enrolled in school are girls. When girls are enrolled, they are usually the first to drop out of school when economic pressures affect their families.” In 2000, when Koo started planning for the Spring Buds project, girls were seen as just another mouth for their families to feed and often stopped going to school after the third grade.

Rosalyn Koo (center) and her Spring Buds in Shaanxi Province, China.

“So you married,” Koo says, “not for love, but to produce children. And if you only have a girl, heaven help you…that’s the end of your life.” Suicide rates were high among teenage mothers. Women who remained single or married poor became domestic servants— “indentured slaves,” Koo calls them. Many of the girls in Spring Buds are orphans, “abandoned by their villages,” Koo explains, whose parents have died from illness or accidents or have left their homes to become migrant workers.

Koo instructed Wang Hong to choose 1,000 of the neediest girls entering fourth grade. These girls were placed in 22 primary schools across the region, and each group was assigned a homeroom teacher to nurture them through at least ninth grade, when they could choose to work, attend vocational school, or continue on an academic track. Meanwhile, Koo organized 400 foreign donors—professional, mostly Chinese-American women who were passionate about education—to fund up to 13 years of education for these girls.

Koo’s goals for the Springs Buds project are clear: to build up a middle class and to create new women leaders. But the program also has another, less tangible result: as the students advance in each stage of schooling, they develop a sense of control over their lives, learning to think independently and make their own decisions, and connecting with mentors and peers outside of their home counties.

Koo, whom the girls call Grandma Koo, has carefully monitored the progress of all her Spring Buds from her home in San Mateo, California, and has visited the young students almost every year. She funneled those who chose to go into vocational school after middle school into three professions— nursing, nursery school teaching, and computers— that have high possibilities for employment, and that she sees as the foundation for the emerging middle class. The 163 girls who have passed the highly competitive college entrance exams are studying a diverse array of fields, including education, art, music, environmental science, medicine, and engineering. These women will graduate from university with student loans, but if they return to their home county and work for two years to benefit the community, they can apply to Koo to have their loans reduced.

Though Koo says the Spring Buds project’s focus is economic support, it’s clear that it is more than just that both for her and for the girls. For these young women, the investment in their education is a transformative affirmation. “Just think: the girl feels like nobody,” Koo says of her Spring Buds. She pauses at length, the words seeming to catch in her throat. Her voice wavers as she continues and she blinks back the moisture in her eyes; the reach of her empathy and emotional investment in these young lives is palpable. “Overnight, you have an American sponsor,” she says. “All of a sudden you are special.”

Education by and for young people

Like Rosalyn Koo, Lacy Asbill and Elana Metz share the desire to run an organization their own way, a conviction Asbill says she took from her education at Mills. They want to take the experience they had at Mills—of feeling supported and encouraged to take risks in small classrooms of women—and bring it to younger girls who may not otherwise have a chance to benefit from such a setting. The cornerstone of their program is providing positive women role models to ensure the success of girls in need.

After graduating from Mills as women’s studies majors, Asbill worked in a bank and Metz worked in a nonprofit health clinic. They both quickly realized they were unfulfilled by their jobs and decided to combine their work experience and feminist education to create an endeavor that would be more meaningful to them: an organization run by and for young people.

“We see the education system as being pretty broken,” says Metz, who wears her bobbed, curly hair clipped back, and speaks with the conviction and eloquence of a seasoned organizer. “The inequity we see in Oakland, let alone nationwide, is overwhelming.” Although the United States has a long history of providing free and compulsory education to youth, not all students have the access, support, or confidence to stay enrolled or engage in the material. Girls Moving Forward seeks to help the most at-risk youth by offering a blend of academic and social skills development through partnerships with public schools—especially “continuation” schools that provide a flexible schedule and specialized curricula for students who were unsuccessful in standard schools. They also offer their services through after-school programs.

Lacy Asbill and Elana Metz (standing at left) with a group of Girls Moving Forward participants.

“We’re working with girls at continuation high schools, with girls at a pregnant and parenting teen school, with girls at a school for kids who’ve been expelled from Oakland schools,” Asbill says. “There is a persistent culture of low expectations for these young women,” she adds. “They know it and they feel it.”

Asbill and Metz base their methodology on a 1991 study, “Shortchanging Girls, Shortchanging America,” that found girls’ academic performance was directly affected by their confidence level. The outcomes achieved by Girls Moving Forward are impressive: the continuation high school students who participate in the program pass the high school exit exam at double the rate of average continuation students. The organization’s tutors work with the girls on body image, self-acceptance, communication, and friendship. “Participants build social and emotional connections that allow them to be open to academic learning,” Asbill explains with an easy smile that conveys her warm, charismatic demeanor.

In 2011, Asbill and Metz were named Yoshiyama Young Entrepreneurs by the Hitachi Foundation, and were awarded a $40,000 grant in addition to professional guidance in growing their business. Girls Moving Forward is now headquartered in an airy, lofted Emeryville office that feels like it could be a young girl’s bedroom, decorated with a playful rug and presided over by an enormous teddy bear. Funded primarily through federal grants, the program has served over 3,000 girls in the past five years, at no cost to the girls’ families, and has expanded to offer a separate program for boys.

Asbill and Metz attribute much of their intellectual capital to the tutors they hire—the majority of whom are people of color or first-generation college students who model academic achievement for the girls.

One of those tutors, Lindsay Castillo, had her own struggles with confidence as a teenager. On the Girls Moving Forward website, she describes her memory of “how scary it can be to take a math problem on and sit in a classroom of people who seem like they understand what’s going on.” She goes on to tell of being introduced to the mother of a student as “a mentor who is helping her become an independent, intelligent young woman.” Touched at the effect she’d had, Castillo says, “That’s my only drive everyday—to hope that I can make a difference.”

The ripple effect

Asbill and Metz hope their work will not only influence the girls they tutor, but also the young people who are doing the tutoring. “We see our organization as the beginning of a ripple,” Metz explains. “Part of the reason we do this is to train the next generation of educators.”

In addition, Asbill and Metz have spent the last two years developing a reading curriculum that suggests more contemporary books like Diary of a Part-time Indian by Sherman Alexie to get students talking about race, class, and low expectations rather than more traditional texts like The Great Gatsby. “The curriculum will roll out in pilot projects with a handful of partner schools in Oakland Unified this fall,” says Metz, “and will be available for general distribution to educators throughout the country shortly afterwards.” The two Mills alumnae see this curriculum program as a way to expand their positive effect beyond the scope of their Oakland- and Watsonville–based programs.

Similarly, Rosalyn Koo has structured the Spring Buds project to create a ripple. The 13-year cycle of schooling Koo initiated will be complete in two years but, at age 84, Koo doesn’t plan to initiate another project of this scale. In order to continue and multiply the positive effects of these girls’ education, she has formed the Spring Bud Student Alliance, a professional association to be administered by the more than 100 girls who will graduate from college. The mission of the alliance is threefold: “Mutual support. Help the needy. Improve the community.”

In Kenya, St. Francis Xavier graduated its first class of 18 girls in 2010, and they are already driven to empower other women in their community. About a third of the girls said they wanted to be lawyers. One told McAuliffe that she wants to provide people fair representation in the courts; another said she wants to defend women threatened by domestic violence as well as by a legal system that tends to favor husbands in family disputes.

As all of these alumnae are creating powerful change for girls in need, they too are feeling a great personal satisfaction rippling back to them. At a 2011 TEDx talk in San Jose, California, McAuliffe encouraged her audience, “If you feel something tugging at your heart, listen up, don’t wait until you’re 68 like I did. And when you step on that path for the first time,” she added, “just be prepared, it may be a longer path than you ever imagined, and infinitely more rewarding.”