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Girl Up club educates, encourages and empowers teen girls


That single word is the main focus of Girl Up, an organization partnered with the United Nations Foundation dedicated to educating, encouraging and empowering girls around the world.

With famous supporters like Cara Delevnigne and Victoria Justice, Girl Up has an impressive reach that spans the globe with currently more than 1,000 registered clubs in 43 states and 51 countries – and it’s still growing.

One local Girl Up club started last year at Williamsville East High School.

"I wanted to start Girl Up because I knew that the feminist movement was huge and so empowering, but I didn’t see it in our school. My friends and I are all feminists and wanted to empower other girls," said Sarina Divan, a senior at Williamsville East. "Once you have a small group of people who are motivated towards a common goal, it just makes sense to organize (it) into a club."

Williamsville East High School’s Girl Up Club, led by Sarina as president, Eva Erickson and Mary Recktenwald as co-vice presidents, Natasha Ionova as treasurer, and Jillian Myers as secretary, sponsored a "Women in Careers" presentation, open to all students, on Feb. 7.

Four successful women –Toni Vazquez, who has been on the Williamsville School Board since 2012 and currently serves as school board president; Marcy Recktenwald, who was a managing director at Merrill Lynch, as well as senior managing director at Bankers Trust Company; Michelle Bulan, executive director of marketing and corporate communications at Perry’s Ice Cream; and Vicki Haas, senior environmental compliance specialist for the Erie County Department of Environment and Planning and a project manager for the county’s habitat restorations at natural habitat parks – were invited to answer questions about their careers.

During the session, one major topic was finding work-life balance.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, women’s labor force participation increased by 53 percent from 1963 to 2012. Moreover, in 2012, 70.5 percent of women working were also mothers. This meant they had both a job and a family.

So how does a working woman maintain her work-life balance?

"Make sure you put yourself and your family first," said Bulan who added she was inspired by the book "Working Women Don’t Have Wives" to maintain her own equilibrium. This book examines the pressures on career-oriented women who have responsibilities in both the home and the workplace.

Recktenwald had a different piece of advice to offer the students.

"There is no work-life balance on Wall Street," she said. However, with excellence comes the power to climb up the corporate ladder.

"Be the best you can be, become the boss, and get a work-life balance," she said. When asked about her biggest obstacle, Vazquez replied, "Being a woman, particularly a woman of color." The other speakers agreed, saying that throughout their careers, they have sometimes felt limited by their gender more than by any other factor.

The four women also encouraged students to acknowledge, but not worry excessively, about their weaknesses.

Reflecting on that advice, Sarina said, "I think a lot of times it’s really difficult to acknowledge your weaknesses, but it’s even more difficult to keep yourself from focusing on fixing them."

The speakers all stressed the importance of concentrating on finding a job that can play to one’s strengths and that suits one’s interests.

For example, Haas became interested in nature as a child, when she would collect plastic bags to help the environment. Now she works as an environmental compliance specialist and project manager for the Erie County Department of Environment and Planning.

This session taught students many important lessons, but perhaps the most important one of all is the power of change.

The increase in successful working women in the nation’s labor force showed the audience that it is possible for current adolescent girls to pursue their dreams of maintaining a brilliant career, in addition to starting a great family – and the four women in front of them had done just that.

Even so, change isn’t just limited to the increasing percentage of working adult women. Girl Up Club itself has changed the high school students involved in this club.

"Being part of Girl Up has given me more confidence and allowed me to form friendships with people who (also) feel passionately about this issue," said Sarina.

Ananya Chakravarti, a junior at Williamsville East, sums up this Girl Up experience, which was her first.

"Attending this conference gave me an insight on how to succeed in life," she said. "It has taught me the importance of being proud of who you are," she said.

Sharon Luo is a sophomore at Williamsville East High School.


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