Meet Three Powerhouses Who Prepare Teens for Next Level
When Jennilyn Doherty graduated from Sonoma State University with a degree in English literature, she thought she wanted nothing more than a strong family and a loving husband. It wasn’t until the second part of this vision came to fruition that she saw the difference she could make for girls in Africa.
Doherty and her husband Jason co-founded a school in Kenya. She describes the project simply: "It was my husband’s fault." Doherty said that her husband kept talking about starting a school in Africa, where he spent a year teaching in Tanzania after graduating from college. After he shared his vision with her over dinner one night in 2006, Doherty decided to help make his dream a reality.
In 2009 — after spending two years asking Kenyans what they needed most — Jennilyn Doherty and Jason opened Daraja Academy in Nanyuki, Kenya, a secondary boarding school for girls living in material poverty. The school has 110 students; each one receives a four-year scholarship.
"Daraja" means "bridge" in Swahili. The school’s name represents its students’ transition from the quiet girls they are before entering Daraja Academy to the strong women leaders they become once they graduate.
"We know a Daraja girl when we see one," Doherty said. A "Daraja girl" walks into her interview, comprised of two men and two women, equal parts Africana and American, with her head high and her palm extended.
Daraja is more than just an education or a sponsorship opportunity. It’s founded on the basis that "if you give a girl academic opportunities and resources, she will be a strong leader for her community."
As an academic institution, Daraja’s success can be measured: Its girls graduate with national exam scores high enough to receive loans from the Kenyan government.
Daraja Academy makes it a point to select girls from areas with tribal diversity (32 in all are represented) to ensure peace — taught through accountability, open communication and improvement wherever possible — and acceptance.
To help develop strength of character and leadership skills, Daraja teaches a leadership and empowerment course called Women of Integrity, Strength, and Hope (WISH). Integrity is examined in the form of moral courage and strong ethics; strength is encouraged by discussing with students, who come from traumatic home lives, marked by sexual abuse, extreme poverty and other suffering, how to be survivors instead of victims. Hope for a better future is the final facet of the WISH model.
Doherty’s next goal for Daraja is to increase the school’s size to its tipping point of 360 girls; this would allow for three classes of 30 girls in each grade level. Now that she knows her model of empowerment and peace among young women works, she envisions opening schools elsewhere in Africa — possibly in Uganda, Tanzania, and South Sudan.
"If we had all the money in the world, we could do it tomorrow," she said. "But for now, it’s all about slow, sustainable growth."
The co-founders of She’s the First — Tammy Tibbetts and Christen Brandt — met as recipients of the New York Women in Communications, Inc. (NYWICI) Foundation Scholarships. Giving back is now a full-time job for them. They are the managers of a nonprofit dedicated to giving scholarships to female elementary and secondary school students in low-income countries. Each scholarship recipient is aiming to be the first in her family to graduate from high school.
For Tibbetts and Brandt, the NYWICI scholarship program gave their careers in journalism a boost. The scholarships also set them on the path to switch from writing about girls’ education to funding it.
As a first-generation college student, Tibbetts was naturally drawn to learning about girls’ education while studying journalism at The College of New Jersey. Later, as Seventeen Magazine’s first social media editor, she realized that she could share her dedication to this cause with others. In 2009, before the global movement for empowering girls through education that exists today, Tibbetts reached out to her social media network with an idea to crowdfund girls’ school fees.
It was through Facebook that Brandt, curious about how she could help, teamed with Tibbetts to build She’s the First.
"It goes to show you the power and the magic of social media," Tibbetts said.
Brandt grew up in Pennsylvania in a mostly female household where she says she was raised to believe she could do anything if she worked hard enough.
"That served me really well until I went to college and I realized that mantra isn’t true for everyone, especially if you’re born into circumstances where you don’t have access to education," she said.
Brandt studied journalism at Syracuse University and later worked as an editor, but often swapped magazines for United Nations reports on the links between girls’ education and poverty reduction.
Today Brandt handles all of the international operations and content strategy for She’s the First while Tibbetts oversees the nonprofit’s campaigns and business management.
She’s the First currently sponsors 600 scholars in 11 countries. Brandt expects that by 2020, the organization will sponsor 3,000 scholars for a total of 10,000 years of education.
"The combination of those stats is really critical to what we do, because it’s not about how many scholars we take on in the next 10 years. It’s about making sure that they make it through to graduation," Brandt said.
As an international nonprofit that started on social media, another goal of She’s the First is ensuring that its own female network around the world is connected.
In a new program aimed at raising global awareness, She’s the First’s scholars chat with their campus chapter peers over Facebook about current events and girls’ education.
Tibbetts said this method of informed advocacy is the way forward: "She’s the First is taking what was once viewed as a charitable cause or model and really making it a collaborative one."