March 3, 2021

Young Women Lead the Way In Dynamic Hun School Program

YOUNG WOMEN EMPOWERED: Students participate in a February 2020 workshop as part of the Young Women’s Leadership Cohort, a selective leadership development program at The Hun School of Princeton. (Photo courtesy of Meghan Poller)

By Donald Gilpin

In September 1971, The Hun School of Princeton welcomed its first 45 young women students on campus, and almost 50 years later the Young Women’s Leadership Cohort (YWLC) is making sure that women’s leadership is a high priority at Hun in this Women’s History Month and throughout the year.

Founded three years ago, the YWLC is a group of 20 junior and senior girls plus a new cohort of 20 ninth and tenth grade girls, all nominated by the faculty for their strong leadership potential. The students in the program undergo extensive leadership training, including skill development, networking, and breaking barriers. 

The program has carried on throughout the pandemic, with many students tuning in via Zoom and at least three different time zones represented. The program’s positive results are apparent.

“It’s definitely making a big impact,” said Dayna Gash, YWLC faculty advisor and ninth grade dean. “All the students, especially in the junior-senior cohort, are occupying leadership roles both internally within the school and in the greater community. We have a female student body president and vice president. With the 50th anniversary of women at Hun School coming up, the campus continues to build on the work we’re doing. This is one of many programs that looks to do that.”

Hun School Junior Bella Gomez, who joined the cohort two years ago as a freshman, feels that being a member of the group has taught her not only how to be a strong leader, but also how to be an advocate for herself and her mental health.

“For a long time, I thought to be a good leader I had to show up every day and be this perfect version of myself, but through this cohort I learned that is simply not the case,” she said. “The best leaders I know are raw, honest, and the first ones to admit when they are having a bad day. I’ve really learned about the power of honesty and integrity and how important it is to be honest about where I am mentally and understanding that one bad day doesn’t make me a bad leader.”

On campus, Gomez leads the student government environmental committee, is co-president of the Autism Awareness Club, a member of the National Honor
Society, and a member of Junior State of America. Off-campus, she runs a nonprofit organization called Triple E—Empowering Environmental Education and sits on the STEM Advisory Board for the National Girls Collaboration Project.

After being nominated in the ninth or tenth grade, participants spend two years engaged in evening workshops and activities designed to identify and hone their personal leadership styles. There is a strong correlation between the students who participate in the program and those who rise to leadership positions at Hun.

In a survey of the first cohort to complete the program, participants noted an increase in skills and confidence in self-compassion, overcoming fear of failure, effective communication skills, and ability to lead on and off campus.

Meghan Poller, associate director of resident life at Hun and, along with Gash, a co-advisor of the YWLC since its inception, emphasized that much of the program’s curriculum focuses on breaking down societal stereotypes of masculine qualities associated with leadership.

“We talk a lot about what the stereotypical definition of a leader is and what that looks like compared to what the stereotypical definition of a good girl is,” she said. “The two definitions differ greatly, so we talk through how to reconcile those qualities and their personal identities. Identifying those conflicts is often the first step toward establishing comfort with how they feel internally, a necessary step for good leadership.”

Poller pointed out that when the program started three years ago, there were girl leaders on campus, but they were primarily in service organizations. “We were hoping to encourage girls to look to some of the more public leadership roles and to aspire to take them on,” she said. “We had a lot of girls who were in more service-oriented leadership roles, and we were hoping to give girls more confidence to aspire to larger leadership roles on campus. We wanted them to feel they could access any leadership role.”

In their first year in the program, participants hear guest presenters and
participate in workshops on such subjects as resisting toxic self-criticism, managing stress, building and practicing compassion for oneself, and embracing different leadership philosophies.

In their second year in the cohort, the group members gain practical experience in leadership by mentoring the younger girls. After working with a professional diversity and inclusion consultant for higher education, the cohort members use the knowledge they have gained to take a hands-on approach in working with newer cohort members, Gash explained.

“The best learning always happens when you are able to apply what you learn to your own life,” said Gash. “It has been amazing to see them learn all these things, understand them through their own lenses, and then apply them in their relationships and leadership roles.”

Poller added, “As they get older, they have a group of other women on campus who are also in leadership positions and they have the support of each other and they can talk through any challenges they are facing in being leaders on campus, so they have a built-in support and are networking among themselves.”

She went on to reflect on her teen years and the value that a program like YWLC could have had for her. “As a younger woman myself, I would have benefited from that,” said Poller, a 1995 Hun graduate. “I think any young woman would benefit from that support as a teen-aged girl.”

“Meghan and I talk often about their wisdom already at such a young age, and it blows me away,” Gash added. “I can only imagine where they’re going to be in the future when they enter the world after school. They’re already making an impact, but where they’re going to be in a couple of years is extraordinary. Their maturity and ability to think things through and support one another and really analyze the situation is really incredible already.”