Young women learn they are stronger together at EOF leadership conference
In a day devoted to empowering young women to pursue higher education, the University’s Educational Opportunity Fund (EOF) hosted its 7th Annual Young Women’s Leadership conference on Friday, March 6.
More than 400 young women from 15 high schools across New Jersey alternatively listened in rapt attention or reacted with boisterous shouts and applause throughout the day’s programming, as presenters and the students themselves shared and inspired each other. In addition to the compelling stories of speakers, the young women enjoyed a riveting runway show and thrilled to a jaw-dropping talent showcase.
Daniel Jean, executive director of the University’s EOF program, explained that the women’s leadership conference – along with a separate companion Boys to Men conference – not only is a source of inspiration and education for attendees, but is also an enrollment pipeline.
“We want to make certain our target communities are aware of the EOF program as a vehicle to ultimately have our scholars reach their personal and professional goals,” Jean said. “So we invite essentially every school from all of our target districts to sign up. We always are over capacity and have to turn schools away.”
Regarding the fun and dynamic elements of the conference, Jean explained, “We understand that college age and high school age students want to be engaged and it goes beyond the curricular. Ultimately we want them to be excited about pursuing higher education and consider Montclair State and the EOF program as an option.”
Keynote speaker Maryann Diaz, a licensed social worker, and American Sign Language interpreter and workshop facilitator, told her story of being the first in her family to attend college – and a missed opportunity. At a welcome event for EOF freshmen, she recalled “a sea of black and brown beautiful faces” that “gave me a sense of home.”
But Diaz had missed the six-week summer EOF program that would have provided support – despite the fact that she qualified. “I missed the fine print. Because I didn’t know. I didn’t know.”
“Talk to your sister and let her know, ‘I got you,’” said Diaz. “When one sister wins, we all win.”
Best-selling author Tiffany Stallings ’99 gave the young women the advice, “Face it until you make it. Ask for help.” She related a fall from success and grace that had her deeply depressed and contemplating suicide. “But my circle, my network would not let me,” Stallings said. “They called me every day. They prayed for me. I opened up. That’s why I’m here today.”
Stallings and Diaz emphasized the need to accept help and build community. To that end, EOF provides academic support, leadership development, financial literacy, career enrichment, intentional counseling/advisement and need-based financial assistance. The program is available to students from underrepresented populations who meet income criteria and exhibit potential.
At the conference fashion show that included business attire, “ready for class” wear and school spirit swag, the students were invited to the runway to strut their stuff. Walking to the strains of Lizzo’s “Juice” and Beyonce’s “Run the World,” the young women showed pride, confidence and communal support. When one young woman named Jarmilla returned to the runway after stumbling on her first try, the crowd erupted into deafening cheers. “They helped me get back up there. I think this conference is going to make a difference,” Jarmilla said.
The young women were also given a takeaway: “I’ve given you little gifts,” said Diaz, “Keys – you are the key that unlocks your potential, be patient and kind with yourself, you are powerful; there are rocks in your bag – adversity always looks huge when you face it, turn your stumbling blocks into stepping stones; once you journey through and look back they are as small as the pebbles in your bag. And the mesh bag – set your intention, be graceful, walk with integrity and secure the bag. In the words of Queen Bey, ‘Okay, ladies, now let’s get in formation!’”
Finally, Diaz said, she is reminded that “my community will see me when I can’t see myself. Nothing is done alone.”
Story by staff writer Mary Barr Mann
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