ASIAN JOURNAL: First Lady Michelle Obama inspires Fil-Am teen

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Los Angeles nonprofit receives National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award

By Momar Visaya

First Lady Michelle Obama honored the 2013 winners of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities Youth Program Awards recently at the East Room of the White House.

Among those honored was WriteGirl, a Los Angeles-based creative writing and mentoring organization for underserved girls in the city. The organization is celebrating its 12th anniversray this week.

In the face of high dropout rates and minimal arts education in Los Angeles public schools, WriteGirl was nationally recognized by the White House for providing teen girls with exceptional out-of-school programming in writing, communication, and literacy skills.

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The organization’s Executive Director and Founder Keren Taylor and WriteGirl participant Jacqueline Uy, age 16, received the award from the First Lady, the highest honor such programs can receive in the United States. WriteGirl was the only youth program in the state of California to receive the award.

“In Los Angeles, WriteGirl is matching at-risk young women with professional writers for one-on-one mentoring and coaching. And these girls are learning to express themselves through poetry, and journaling, and investigative writing. And in the last dozen years through this program, every single one of the program’s graduating seniors has gone on to college,” said Mrs. Obama, honorary chair of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities

Chosen from a pool of more than 350 nominations and 50 finalists, WriteGirl was recognized for using engagement in the arts and the humanities to increase academic achievement, graduation rates, and college enrollment, as well as improve literacy and language abilities, communication and performance skills, and cultural awareness.

For 12 consecutive years, WriteGirl has maintained a 100 percent success rate in guiding high school seniors in their Core Mentoring Program to not only graduate from high school but enroll in college, a stark contrast to the 50 percent dropout rate at Los Angeles public high schools.

Fil-Am teen gets inspired

Jacqueline Cablas Uy dreams of someday traveling the world to write newspaper stories that change lives. Growing up in a one-bedroom condo in Los Angeles, she often reads National Geographic and was inspired by the journalists who had the freedom to fly to exotic places and tell the world’s untold stories.

She always worried though that being a minority would limit her options, as she sensed a lack of Filipino American women at the top of the news business. But her WriteGirl mentor Katherine shows her she has the potential to break through barriers and declare her place in journalism.

Meeting the First Lady was something that the young teen will talk about in the years to come.

“It was amazing. As I was walking up to meet her, my eyes got a little watery because the importance and reality of the moment had finally hit me,” Uy told the Asian Journal in an email interview. “They told us that we could only give her a handshake and we could not talk to her unless she initiated the conversation but I hadn’t even reached her on the stage yet when she opened her arms for an embrace.”

Recalling those precious moments, Uy added, “She emitted a warmness that made me forget my nervousness and my previous fear of making a fool of myself in front of the cameras and audience. And even though we only met with her for a few minutes, it felt like she was really concentrated on us and that she really did care.”

WriteGirl founder and executive director Keren Taylor joined Uy onstage to receive the award from the First Lady.

“Jacqueline aspires to be a journalist. She is in the 11th grade and still developing her voice, and her goals, and we knew that this would be a significant moment in her life. We’re excited that she will still be in WriteGirl next year, and will have a chance to share her experience with other girls in the program,” Taylor told the Asian Journal in an email interview.

WriteGirl Executive Director Keren Taylor and Jacqueline Uy outside the White House

WriteGirl Executive Director Keren Taylor and Jacqueline Uy outside the White House

WriteGirl matched Jacqueline, a junior at LACES High School in Los Angeles with a mentor who is a journalist herself, as well as a photo-journalist. One of the core components of the WriteGirl program is the intensive mentoring that a girl receives, directly from working women writers who are active and excellent writers in their genre.

“We know that Jackie will grow as a writer and speaker from spending time with Katie Geyer, her mentor. We observe positive changes in Jackie already, as she grows more comfortable talking about herself and her future aspirations and while we cannot lay claim to all the growth that we see in our teen girls, we see that WriteGirl workshops and mentoring sessions have a strong and significant impact on their development,” Ms. Taylor added.

Jacqueline is now the news editor for her student newspaper at the Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies. She is also a media intern at her community center and a published author in WriteGirl’s anthology. She plans to attend a four-year university to study journalism and international relations.

It was about a year ago when Jackie, then a staff writer for a teen newspaper called LA Youth, learned about WriteGirl. Her editor there, Mike, told her about this creative writing program for girls.

Jackie did her due diligence later and googled WriteGirl. With what she read, she knew that WriteGirl was a program that she wanted to be involved in so she signed up as soon as she could. She was so eager about joining because at that time LA Youth was closing down and she needed a new haven of creativity.

She felt confident that the program was directed toward girls, which made her feel more comfortable about sharing her work “because they I knew that they would be more understanding toward my thoughts since they dealt with similar things.”

“I want to do something in the future that allows me to have that impact on other people’s lives. WriteGirl helps me in achieving this by not only teaching me the basics like leads and nut grafs during workshops and my meetings with my mentor Katie, but also through support. The whole staff of WriteGirl teaches girls to embrace what’s unique about them,” Uy said.

Uy’s family traces its roots in Northern Luzon in the Philippines. Her mom is from Narvacan, Ilocosur and her dad is from Solano, Nueva Vizcaya.

“My parents have been living here for about 20 years and I have very few family members who live here but despite that, I still retain my culture by not only eating the food but also speaking the language. My mom makes it a point to speak to me in Tagalog as well as Ilocano so that I can speak multiple languages and not just English,” she shared.

One of Uy’s dreams is to visit the home country of her parents in the future.

“I am hoping to visit in the future because most of my family members live there, some of whom I have never met before. Plus, my friends who have gone tell me about how beautiful it is there and how they didn’t want to leave when it was time for them to go, so going there is definitely something that I look forward to,” she said.

Motivating students through arts

“Studies have shown that students who are highly involved in the arts stay in school longer than those who are less involved,” said Mrs. Obama in her speech at the ceremony. “Arts education also leads to better scores in reading and math. And it makes students much more motivated and engaged, period, in school. They come to school more, they set higher goals for themselves, and they have a reason to achieve them because they’re determined to succeed because they’re passionate about something.”

WriteGirl pairs professional women writers with teen girls for weekly one-on-one mentoring, writing workshops, public readings, and publishing opportunities. WriteGirl partners with arts and civic institutions each month for full-day creative writing workshops for hundreds of girls and women, including the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Autry Museum, the GRAMMY Museum, and Walt Disney Concert Hall. WriteGirl also provides one-on-one guidance for seniors to help them prepare for college.

Dr. Allison Deegan, who serves as WriteGirl’s Associate Director, said, “We have an intensive approach to helping girls get to college. This past year, our staff and volunteer mentors guided our girls to complete more than a hundred college applications.”

Only 11 percent of California’s public schools are meeting state goals for arts instruction (artsed411.org). Students with four years of arts or music in high school average 100 points better on their SAT scores than students with one-half year or less (Americans for the Arts).

“WriteGirl offers a replicable model for moving the needle on improving education for Los Angeles youth,” said Ms. Taylor. “When you involve personal creativity in learning, when you focus on assets, you help teens grow confident and engaged in shaping their own future..

(NYNJ December 13, 2013 LifeEASTyle Magazine pg.2)