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DU Students Launch Program With Local High School to Empower Girls

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Nicole Militello

Senior Media Relations Specialist

Nicole Militello

News  •
DU Project Like A Girl students

Almost two years ago, DU student Zoi Johns was meeting with her Pioneer Leadership Program (PLP) small group to brainstorm a community project. “On the count of three, say who you want to work with,” Johns recalls. The next moment launched them on a journey that would define their time at DU.

“One ... two … three: Girls!” the whole group said in unison.

“So, we came up with Project Like A Girl,” Johns explains. “We wanted to educate younger girls about self-esteem, confidence and sexual education — all things we really didn’t learn, so we wanted to create an all-girls space for this learning to happen.”

Project Like A Girl brings together a team from all corners of campus. Johns is finishing her undergraduate degree in anthropology and starting her master’s degree classes in international studies. Lillian Stone is a graduating English major with a minor in legal studies. Dajah Brooks is a senior focusing in marketing and minoring in analytics. And Tia Polite is in her third year at DU, studying hospitality management and business. All of them are earning a leadership minor through the Pioneer Leadership Program.

“It’s been the best team ever,” Johns says.

Building the Program

The team built a connection with Denver’s Thomas Jefferson High School to host their program. There, they meet with a group of girls once a week after school. The first step to defining Project Like A Girl was building out exactly what the program would look like and what topics they would cover.

“Something that was really important to us with our curriculum was to make sure it was accessible to as many people as possible,” Stone says. “Our curriculum goes through self-esteem, making decisions, relationships as far as friendships, family relationships, romantic relationships and how to advocate for yourself within relationships. Then we move into sexual health, reproductive health and go on to together topics like how the media influences our ideas of ourselves and how to bring these lessons home into family and school life.”

In designing the lessons, the DU students aimed to foster discussion through activities. Their goal was to have the group of high school girls grow together. Much of the curriculum was inspired by Virgie Tovar’sThe Self-Love Revolution: Radical Body Positivity for Girls of Color.”  

As Brooks explains, “We made it based on things we all experienced — or didn’t experience.  Everything that’s in the curriculum from self-esteem to healthy relationships to navigating the media are things we feel were never actually talked about in-depth. It was just glossed over.”

The team wanted to create a space for high school girls to have these conversations — not just with their peers, but also with the DU team, who can speak from a college perspective. 

“The activities were all planned to make sure they are engaging, and discussions are made so everyone feels like their voice is included, versus a teacher who is removed from that phase of life,” Brooks says. “We were thinking about how we can make this something the girls can use for themselves independently, but also things that aren’t just going to be another piece of homework.”

Emily Lupo, the dean of culture at Thomas Jefferson High School, has embraced this partnership with the DU team.

“Not only is Project Like A Girl a fresh program and unique to our school, but it has also built an incredible community amongst a group of our female students — something that our kids need now more than ever,” Lupo says. “Between all the relationship building and the discussions about healthy relationships, the team (Lilli, Tia, Dajah and Zoi) honestly could have not come at a more perfect time.”

The program was able to launch on the DU side thanks to funding from an ACE Grant from DU Grand Challenges and PLP’s Passport Fund.

Emphasizing mentorship

Over the yearlong phase of building the curriculum, the Project Like A Girl team worked on being very intentional about every aspect of program development. Tia Polite says this was built by emphasizing mentorship and all-girls spaces.

“From the initial research we did on this project, we discovered there’s a lot of power in these all-girls spaces,” Polite explains. “There’s a lot more vulnerability that can happen in those spaces. Our hope with this space is when we get into heavier topics, they will actually be able to think about them and develop the self-confidence and self-esteem to take it seriously and really understand it.”

The DU students hope that by instilling these practices early in high school, the high school girls will be able to carry them into their college experience and into their careers. Stone says she can already see the girls embracing what they are learning.

“It’s been amazing to watch these girls and how they communicate with each other with respect,” Stone says. “They are opening up about how they feel about themselves and what they struggle with. Being vulnerable takes bravery, so watching them pour out their hearts and open up and encourage each other has been so cool to see.”

What’s next

With some of the DU team getting ready to graduate this year, they want to ensure the program’s continuity. Students at Thomas Jefferson High School are working to make Project Like A Girl an official school organization next year, while the DU team is planning to make the program a volunteer opportunity for incoming first-year students at the University.

“Seeing this come to fruition is something I don’t think any of us were really expecting,” Brooks says. “It’s really cool to see that impact and see that change — and in our own lives. We’ve all changed so much over the two years we’ve worked on this project and just being able to go on this journey has been so much fun.”

For their part, participants echo the sentiment.

“I knew that I needed Project Like a Girl in my life because I couldn’t stop thinking about joining when it was introduced at [Thomas Jefferson],” one participant says. “[It] has really helped me identify my values, become more confident, more open with my thoughts and being able to grow with the people in this club. Honestly, I wouldn't be who I am today without Lilli Stone, Dajah Brooks, Zoi Johns and Tia Polite. They went above and beyond with this club and made it exciting, informational, fun, insightful and much more.”