Actress Jasmine Guy took center stage at the closing ceremony of the At the Well (ATW) Young Women’s Leadership Summer Academy in Princeton University’s Friend Center last Friday.
Ms. Guy spoke about her life experiences as a young woman who left home at 17 to dance for the Alvin Ailey company in New York City and, more recently, of her personal achievement as author of a biography of Afeni Shakur, the mother of Tupac Shakur, titled, Evolution of a Revolutionary.
Ms. Guy was just one of a stellar line-of inspirational mentors, teachers, entrepreneurs, and accomplished business leaders in the African American community invited by At the Well’s founder Jacqueline Glass to share their skills and experiences with a select group of 80 high school girls entering grades 10 through 12 from across the country, including Hawaii.
The ceremony was the culmination of two weeks in which high schoolers had followed a rigorous schedule of leadership training activities with workshops in mathematics, critical reading and writing, SAT preparation, independent study, and rehearsals for a play about deterring violence against women and girls created by the young scholars themselves. They participated in team building activities and heard from motivational speakers the likes of Brandi and Karli Harvey, entertainer Steve Harvey’s daughters; inventor Lisa Ascolese of QVC Television and The Home Shopping Network; author A’Lelia Bundles, whose biography of her great great grandmother Madame C. J. Walker, On Her Own Ground, is a New York Times bestselling biography and who is now working on a biography of her great-grandmother, A’Lelia Walker; Huffington Post blogger and money expert Tiffany Aliche; beauty journalist and editor Tai Beauchamp (Oprah Magazine, Seventeen); Delta Airlines professional and Atlanta Daily World’s 2013 Woman of Excellence Karmetria Burton; Deborah Owens, author of A Purse of Your Own; among others.
“I connected with speakers who had a passion for making a difference in the lives of girls. All of our faculty and our guest speakers like Jasmine Guy were excited to be coming here. These are individuals who can command large honoraria far beyond what we are able to give, but more than that they have heart,” said At the Well Founder and CEO Jacqueline Glass.
Now in it’s third year, ATW is the only summer leadership institute at an Ivy League campus for minority teen girls from under-served communities. From July 28 until August 9, they boarded at Princeton University and experienced a taste of college life. They were taught by Princeton University professors and coached by Goldman Sachs professionals.
It wasn’t all study, however, there was time for fun and a trip to New York City to attend a Broadway show, Motown. To their delight, comedian Chris Rock, the uncle of one student, stopped by to visit his niece.
Perhaps best known for her role as the iconic southern belle Whitley Gilbert from the Cosby Show spinoff television series A Different World, Jasmine Guy has a recurring role as Grams on the popular series Vampire Diaries. Her theater work includes Broadway productions of The Wiz, Grease and Chicago and among her awards are six consecutive NAACP Image Awards.
Commenting on her participation in a pre-event interview, Ms Guy said: “It is very important for us to reach out to these young girls, especially since all of the issues that we had growing up are compounded today with the revolution in communications. I wasted a lot of time comparing myself to others and tearing myself down. All we have is our own perspective so it needs to be balanced and healthy. It’s taken me many years to learn to do that, and I still fall prey to negative thinking from time to time. I hope to convey some of the ways that you can switch from negative to positive thinking and be a friend to yourself.” Her keynote address was peppered with wit and wisdom,
Motivated by the academic achievement gap between minority teen students and their white counterparts Jacqueline Glass, a 2003 graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, founded At the Well, which has its roots in a series of one-day conferences she set up beginning in 2009 to empower women, particularly women of color, who were struggling as she had.
Besides being a licensed minister, Ms. Glass has worked as an adjunct professor, a publishing professional, freelance marketing consultant, and editor. She is currently a court reporter for the New York Supreme Civil Court proceedings.
“The women’s conferences were founded as an alternative to feeling frustrated by not being able to climb the corporate ladder in spite of being overqualified in jobs and being looked over for promotion,” said Ms. Glass.
At one such event, a program for teenage girls was added. “That’s when I found my calling. This is a form of ministry for me. These girls hunger and thirst for knowledge, guidance, and leadership,” said Ms. Glass whose own teenage daughter is now in her second year as an undergraduate at Rutgers University and was a counselor at this year’s Academy.
According to Ms. Glass, “The U.S. Department of Education statistics state African Americans account for about 13 percent of the entire college enrollment. The low performance of African-American students in math and on SAT scores is alarming. Our program addresses these issues head-on.”
The first two-week At the Well Summer Leadership Academy was held in 2011. In 2012, there were 43 girls. This year that number has doubled. Of hundreds of applicants, only one in three is accepted. “This has grown beyond my wildest expectations,” she said.
To participate, students had to meet criteria based upon recommendations, an interview, a written essay, extracurricular activities, and grade point average. A generous grant from the F.I.S.H. Foundation has supported the Academy for two years. Toby Sanders, ATW director of curriculum and critical reading teacher has plans to set up a similar program for boys as soon as funding can be found.
At the Well
The name of the program was inspired by the Biblical story in the Gospel of John in which Christ speaks at length to an unnamed Samaritan woman who has come to draw water from a well and is transformed by the experience. “It is my hope that the experience of participating in this program will be transformative with inspiration, education, and reflection leading to transformation, seeing things anew,” said Ms. Glass.
A highlight of the closing ceremony was student Brandi McLeod’s a cappella singing. “I’m not the average girl from the video/and I ain’t built like a supermodel/but I learnt to love myself unconditionally/… my worth is not determined by the price of my clothes/no matter what I’m wearing I will always be/the beautiful Brandi.” Members of the audience had goosebumps.
For more information, visit: http://atthewellconferences.org.