Reaching the end of year 10 can be daunting for any high school student, as you prepare for the unknown hurdles and challenges ahead.
But a group of girls from Caroline Chisholm School in Canberra’s south are feeling a little more ready to tackle the world, after participating in an empowerment program organised by two of their teachers.
During the COVID-19 lockdowns, teachers Hillary Swann and Yooga Kumar noticed students were withdrawing from their work and disconnecting from others around them.
The pair decided to create a space online where students could connect and chat, and they discovered most of the participants joining weekly were young women.
Based on the topics raised in the online discussions between the students and teachers, they noticed a common theme: a lack of self-esteem and self-worth.
From there, the Empower program was born.
“It’s run for young women as a way to build their sense of self-worth, their self-esteem, their self-efficacy, and essentially explore opportunities that might not be in front of them,” Ms Swann said.
Building connection and support networks
The students involved in Empower have been participating in a range of activities and discussions, all organised to suit the needs and concerns of the girls.
“A lot of the discussions were about the stereotypes that society put on young women and the restrictions they felt that they had to limit themselves to,” Ms Swann said.
Body image and body positivity were common topics, which in turn raised conversations about physical activity.
There were also sessions about hormones and menstruation, which allowed for more in-depth questions to be answered than what was covered in the school curriculum.
Ms Swann said Empower provided opportunities to have conversations and do activities that students wouldn’t usually get to explore in the classroom or at home, and helped them improve connections and support networks.
A number of female industry professionals have spoken to the group to highlight female success stories and the different pathways available post-graduation of year 10.
One participant, Kathleen Laidlaw, said a highlight of the program was meeting “lots of powerful women” throughout the community, including sportswoman Pesi Palu and Work Health and Safety Commissioner Jacqueline Agius.
“The thing I learnt the most was just connecting to our community and just creating a safety net full of women we can trust,” she said.
Learning to box and ride a bike
Student Matilda Gee enjoyed participating in weekly boxing lessons before school, as a number of the students had decided boxing “would be a really fun sport to get to try”.
She said it was inspiring to meet successful women who were part of typically male-dominated industries.
Matilda plans to go to college and university after high school, with her passion in the medical field growing since hearing from industry professionals.
“It’s something I aspire to be,” she said.
Participant Caitlin Black also enjoyed the physical activity sessions, but particularly the opportunity to ride bikes on the bike trail at the back of the school.
“I learnt a lot during that lesson, how to ride a bike, and other people did too,” she said.
“We were able to form a community around that.”
She said forming a support network with other female students had been really important for her.
“I’m able to reach out to them and talk to them whenever I need to, or whenever they need to,” she said.
“We’re able to form a safe space for each other while going through the trials of being a teenager in this world.”
Some students will be the first in their families to go to uni
When Empower was first formed, Ms Swann and Ms Kumar encouraged the girls to apply for a scholarship program aimed at socio-economically disadvantaged students in Canberra.
Student Lin Yi-Tong won the scholarship and said “it shaped my school life and who I am as a person”.
“It’s helped me realise that I do have a lot of options open, because initially my ideas of my career path and what I wanted to do was quite narrow-minded,” she said.
With the school year drawing to a close, Ms Swann and Ms Kumar have reflected on the achievements of the Empower participants.
“I’m really proud of what they’ve done, seeing them form connections with peers and moments of mentoring, and seeing them flourish and being confident in themselves,” Ms Kumar said.
“We’ve seen them achieve scholarships, we’ve seen them engage more with their education, engage more with staff members, and we’ve seen higher levels of positive emotions and connectedness,” Ms Swann added.
“A few of the students are going to be the first who’ve set their sights on university in their families, and even the first to go to college.
“I’m so proud of them, I feel like I’m doing my work as a teacher. We’re providing better options for our students going into the future.”
Ms Swann said plans for Empower 2023 were already underway, with the program next year to focus on community activism.
She hoped students would identify changes they wanted to see in the world and, using community speakers and other connections, mentor the students to start enacting those changes.
“It could be something super small in our community, or something a little bit bigger across Canberra,” she said.
Other ACT schools have now expressed interest in the Empower program and are hoping to adapt it within their own communities.