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Empowering Women through Higher Education in The Brave Little State

April 30, 2018
Empowering Women through Higher Education in The Brave Little State

VHEC’s AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) program, which falls under Vermont Campus Compact, focuses on improving college access and success for first generation, low-income, and underrepresented students in Vermont. VHEC currently has seven 2017-18 VISTA members serving in a variety of offices at five different campuses around Vermont.

Written by Zoe McDonald, an AmeriCorps VISTA serving at Vermont Technical College in Randolph Center.           

 “Can you name the quadratic formula? What are two programming languages? Can you name the state’s two senators?” I asked high school girls at Women Can Do, a conference hosted by Vermont Technical College and the non-profit Vermont Works for Women.

Girls bunched up their faces trying to remember. Some asked a friend or nearby adult for help. Later they smiled when they got it right. Some told me they wanted to become carpenters and engineers. Some were on a college campus for the first time. One took out her phone to quiz me on the periodic table.

Teenage girls laid side by side on the sidewalk outside of Vermont Tech’s Judd Hall looking at their friends climbing the ladder on the Randolph Center fire truck. Others waited in line to put on safety gear to use a chain saw to cut a log into coasters.

I later learned about one woman who dreamed of building a wooden trailer. She brought her trailer and woodworking equipment to the conference each year. She shared her story of learning carpentry and encouraged girls to write positive affirmations on sticky notes to place in her trailer. She used her hobby to show girls that they do not have to limit themselves to traditional hobbies.

A century ago, American women couldn’t vote in national elections. During World War II women entered the workforce to fill jobs building airplanes and in factory assembly lines. Women in the mid-century lobbied for public universities to offer the same opportunities for men and women. However, today women are still more likely to live in poverty than men.

Programs like Women Can Do are crucial in an era where women earn more degrees than men, but continue to earn less. Census data shows about half of Vermont women who work full-time fail to earn enough to cover their basic living expenses. Despite legislation and cultural shifts, by and large, men and women occupy the same careers as the Baby Boomer generation.

Cultural messaging pushes women and girls out of fields dominated by men. Mainstream culture shows few women engineers or construction workers. Girls are conditioned to speak less in the classroom. Many lack information about average earnings--which shows that in Vermont construction workers and civil engineers earn an average $15 and $34 an hour, but hairdressers and registered nurses average only $12 and $30 an hour. Add in family responsibilities, geographic location, and socioeconomic status, and Vermont women face a complex set of factors limiting their social mobility.

A college degree is no guarantee of entering into the middle class and avoiding poverty, but a degree is becoming a requirement for jobs in health care and computer programming. The Vermont Department of Labor predicts most new in-state jobs will require at least some college education. There is also a growing gap between the lifetime earnings of those with no college education and those with at least a bachelor’s degree—the potentially expensive, but crucial requirement, for an estimated additional million dollars in lifetime earnings and career in the state’s growing industries.

Both the state of Vermont and AmeriCorps recognize a four-year degree as one of the most effective ways out of poverty. Many VISTAs with assignments in higher education serve as advocates for disadvantaged populations to complete four-year degrees and enter into economic self-sufficiency. The researchers Anthony Carnevale, Stephan Rose, and Ban Cheahat of The George Town University Center of Education and the Workforce find not only do those with a degree earn more, but they are also more likely to vote in elections and donate to non-profits. Education becomes a benevolent cycle of lifting individuals out of poverty and into compassionate democratic citizenship.

Vermont Technical College provides educational opportunities to women through on-campus speakers, educational summer camps, and the Women Can Do conference. However, it takes more than a single conference, or a single college, to chisel away at unconscious biases pushing women into service sectors and away from building, information technology, and finance. Activities emphasizing educational choices form drops in the bucket of a movement where gender no longer determines a college major or eventual career. The high school girls at Women Can Do proudly shared their interests in studying fields where women form a minority. A few months later, I saw high school girls combine their visual design and physics skills to win Vermont Tech’s Popsicle stick bridge building competition. The drops are forming and may soon fall into the bucket where Vermonters of all genders translate their education into sustainable careers.

Vermont Works for Women recommends complimenting girls on their actions and effort, rather than their appearances. Change the Story, a Vermont Works for Women offshoot, recommends girls learn how to change a tire and have honest conversations about personal finances. Click to learn about the Vermont Department of Labor’s job market predictions and the Vermont Student Assistance Corporation’s scholarships for qualified residents. Please consider a donation to a college or university to help provide need-based scholarships and extracurricular programs for women in non-traditional fields.


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