V.I. girls encouraged to embrace skills needed for success

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ST. THOMAS ­- While junior and high school boys were attending the Man-Up conference at the University of the Virgin Islands on Monday, the girls took part empowering and inspiring presentations from Virgin Islands professionals at a number of schools on St. Thomas.

The day of seminars allowed the girls to ask questions they might not with the boys around and emphasized career goals, economic independence, self-esteem and self-care.

Each school had a different theme, but the overall aim of the annual "Girls Only" day was to promote values and skills that would propel young women toward success at a transitional age when they are susceptible to dropping out, getting pregnant or abandoning aspirations to college and careers.

At Addelita Cancryn Junior High School, the theme of the day was Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.

Dr. Tai Hunte, a Cancryn alumna and the territorial infectious diseases control specialist for the V.I. Health Department, told students that becoming a doctor is not hard; it just takes a lot of hard work.

Hunte said that when she was at Cancryn it thrilled her to be part of an award-winning MathCounts team that beat out teams from St. Thomas private schools. A graduate of Charlotte Amalie High School, Hunte also shared how her dedication to academics earned her a scholarship to Howard University.

"You have to try to overcome all of the barriers and obstacles that are in front of you in the public school system. You have to use all of your resources, all of your teachers, your counselors and your parents so that you can have everything that is available to you," Hunte said. "If you look at me, I was where you are. I have been to public schools my entire life, and I was able to go to college because I studied."

Cancryn principal Yvonne Pilgrim said STEM was the focus of this year's girls-only conference because technology increasingly was making math and science-intensive fields more lucrative, and they are fields where studies have shown female participation lags behind.

The girls spent the afternoon working on hands-on projects, such as putting together a perfume kit from its chemical components and using tablet computer technology to explore the designs of solar-powered cars. An all-girl team put the finishing touches on a go-cart they had built to enter in the upcoming STEM fair.

Director of the Central Office of Engineering for Innovative Technologies, Lena Williams, said that girls need more hands-on, applications-oriented projects to inspire them to enter fields, such as engineering. Math and science are not as appealing to girls when taught solely as problem solving on paper, she said.

Williams gave a presentation on the many job applications of an engineering degree.

"Girls need to understand that they need to make a living and this is a good way to make a living. There's nothing wrong with being a social worker or being in any of the female-dominated fields, but they tend to be lower paying fields," Williams said. "We're just trying to give girls access to all the fields that they can get into."

At Ivanna Eudora Kean High School, the theme of the day was "Giving Girls the E.D.G.E.": esteem, dignity, guidance and empowerment. Presenters taught life skills, such as keeping a budget, financing a college degree, managing stress and proper nutrition. Other sessions focused on sexuality issues, maintaining a positive body image and avoidance of cyber-bullying.

Agent Troy Titley, an investigator with the V.I. Justice Department, spoke about the high rates of sexually transmitted diseases and teenage pregnancy in the Virgin Islands.

Using body bags and an aborted fetus as visual aids, Titley said he was trying to give the girls "a reality check" and bring home the point that unprotected sex can have lifelong consequences.

He told the students to always "put themselves first" in their decision-making.

"A lot of young women today think that they are old enough to be making these decisions about having sex and using drugs, but deep down, they are not ready" said Nora De Jesus, a 17-year-old 12th-grader at Kean.

Students at Charlotte Amalie High School watched a video called "Miss Representation," part of an online campaign to combat sexism in the media, about the negative psychological effects of hypersexualized images of young women in mass media and derogatory depictions of women in power, such as Hillary Cinton and Condoleezza Rice.

"Today we basically found out about how the media's messages to females is that we are not worth anything unless we are skinny and of a certain size," said 16-year-old student Felecia George. "I learned that writers and directors of the movies, only 16 percent of them are women."

Sheronda Phillips, an 11th-grader at Charlotte Amalie, said the most important message she received from Monday's activities was "we don't have to be what we see on TV. We can be our own person."

- Contact reporter Amanda Norris at 714-9104 or email anorris@dailynews.vi.

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