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Young women leaders prepare to take on the world: Chelsea Clinton visits Raleigh school

“I think we often don’t know where we’re going to wind up when we start.”
–Chelsea Clinton

For the last school visit on her book tour, Chelsea Clinton visited the perfect location. Clinton’s new book It’s Your World is about inspiring kids to make a difference. Wake Young Women’s Leadership Academy is focused on educating the future leaders of tomorrow by inspiring them to learn, lead, and serve.

Wake Young Women’s Leadership Academy — or WYWLA (pronounced why-wool-ah) for short — is a magnet middle and early college high school in Wake County that serves girls, half of which are first generation college hopefuls. As both a leadership academy and a STEM school, they are dedicated to increasing diversity in the workforce by educating strong female leaders and introducing them to the STEM pipeline.

Grades six through ten take classes in buildings located on the Governor Morehead School campus. They share several facilities with the 170-year-old school for blind and visually impaired students.

For Clinton’s visit, the leadership academy invited members of Governor Morehead School, along with WYWLA students, teachers, staff, and community leaders. Eighth grader Katie Vick introduced Chelsea Clinton to the audience and welcomed her with yellow roses, the symbol of friendship that welcomes all new young women leaders to WYWLA.

The school’s mascot is the owl, and the young women at WYWLA proudly own the acronym OWL, which stands for Outstanding Woman Leader. Throughout the school, owls are displayed often and students regularly refer to themselves as OWLs.

Clinton is an embodiment of the OWL values held by the teachers, staff, and students of WYWLA. As the daughter of former President Bill Clinton and 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, Chelsea Clinton has had opportunities many young women have not. She knows she is fortunate. But since Clinton was a child, she has felt the calling to make positive change in the world. Now, she is on a mission to let others know that they can make an impact — regardless of age, race, or gender. All that is needed is ambition, an idea, and time.

When Clinton was ten years old, she read the book 50 Simple Things Kids Can Do To Save the Earth. It made a big impression on her and helped open her eyes to how she could make small changes in her life that create big impacts in the world. Clinton explained to the audience:

“It also helped me realize how my school could be a real vehicle of change and how we could start a recycling program and how much power I had as a kid. And yet it wasn’t only about books or newspapers, it was also about people in my life, helping to broaden my understanding about what was happening in the world and what our responsibility was – as my grandmother always said – to ‘expand our circle of blessings.’”

The class of 2016 is WYWLA’s first senior class. In the students’ junior year, they begin taking classes at St. Augustine’s University, a historically black college in downtown Raleigh. The 32 young women who will graduate this year have the opportunity to graduate with up to two years — 64 credits — of college courses and can choose to stay for a fifth year for even more credits.

Just as valuable as the college credits is the senior year internship, which gives the students real-life work experiences. The girls also take career and technical education courses and work with the school’s business alliance to learn interview skills, networking, and resume building and to connect to resources in the community. “The students here are not afraid to engage with adults,” says Principal Carla Jernigan-Baker.

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There are a lot of hurdles facing girls and women in the race to succeed. WYWLA is a supportive place for these young OWLs to learn how to be successful in all ways. The students at WYWLA have high expectations for themselves and put a lot of pressure on themselves to succeed. But the school wants the students to not be afraid to take chances. Vice Principal Margaret Feldman explained, “They need to know that it’s okay to take chances and fail. Then they can try again and succeed.”

During the Q&A session of her event, Clinton urged the young women to take chances and ask for what they want because “the worst thing that anyone is ever going to say to you is ‘no.'”

Every day at WYWLA, students meet in small groups for their Girls Leadership Class (GLC). They learn about ways they can follow the Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership®, which are:

  • Model the way
  • Inspire a shared vision
  • Challenge the process
  • Enable others to act
  • Encourage the heart

A middle schooler asked Clinton for advice she could give young women as they prepare to become leaders. Clinton said it was important that they were already thinking of themselves as leaders and that “there are more opportunities for young women than ever before.”

One student from Governor Morehead School asked “after visiting many schools have you heard from many students who have begun to make a change and get going?” Clinton said, “Absolutely,” and then shared this uplifting story about an eight-year-old girl who wanted to bring back Pegasus:

Carla Jernigan-Baker, the principal of WYWLA, said of Clinton’s visit:

“You don’t think about it when you’re a student, do you? When you’re a student you kind of are in your own little world. That is what was great about having Chelsea here, because she’s now given them the opportunity to look outside of their world. And it’s not just your world. THIS is your world. I know I didn’t get that. That didn’t click for me at that age. Our goal here is to help our students realize that you can do whatever you want. If you can dream it, it’s possible. And you’re not limited to your immediate environment. Your world isn’t just Raleigh. Your world is bigger than that.”

And the OWLs are invigorated from Clinton’s visit. They just finished reading It’s Your World and really appreciated having the opportunity to speak with Clinton and ask her questions about the book. Student body president and tenth-grader Tafui Leggard said, “We’re the ones who are going to benefit — or not benefit — from what happens as a result of our decisions. So I encourage those around me to go out and do something because it’s important. It really is our world. It’s our turn to step up to the plate.”

Alisa Herr

Alisa Herr is the former chief technical officer of EducationNC.