Uniondale schools Superintendent Monique Darrisaw-Akil speaks with club members, from left, Zahara Saintyl, Valentina Goris and Alysia Eason at Uniondale High School. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

Two years ago, Bernice Wong stumbled into a meeting that shaped her career trajectory.

Then a high school sophomore, Wong wasn’t sure what she wanted to pursue after graduation. She considered liberal arts and majoring in law. But that changed after that first meeting at She Has Empowerment, a club at Great Neck South High School that encourages more female students to get into STEM fields — that's science, technology, engineering and math.

Now a senior, Wong, 17, plans to study mechanical engineering in college. “S.H.E. helped me get to where I am today,” she said.

Teens like Wong are among the Long Island students who said they’ve benefited from the connections formed in school groups that empower girls and young women and uplift them.

It’s “having this community of people trying to teach each other things and trying to build each other up,” said Sarah Bernstein, a founder of S.H.E. who now studies computer science at the University of Rochester.

S.H.E. / Great Neck

S.H.E. grew out of the high school’s robotics team and has become a schoolwide club. This year, it has about 25 female members and welcomes all students, club president Tiffany Zhang, 18, said.

It was founded in 2021 by Bernstein, Eden Katz and Sana Merchant, who graduated in 2022, and it meets weekly during the school year.

“The way it was created was to bridge this gap from our older girls to our younger, incoming girls who want to learn more about robotics but don't really know where they fit in,” Wong said, recalling how the three founders, who were seniors at the time, took her under their wing and guided her.

The founders, now in college pursing degrees in mechanical engineering and computer science, said they created it to draw more female students into the robotics team and STEM fields.

“We wanted to make sure that we were able to recruit a lot of girls,” said Katz, who’s studying mechanical engineering at Columbia University. “They would be able to meet older girls who could mentor them, and they could learn about women in STEM and the history of women in engineering.”

When the robotics team formed in 2006, it had one female and 10 male students, said John Motchkavitz, lead mentor for the team.

Beatrice Malfi, 17, a senior and a member of both the robotics team and S.H.E., put herself in the shoes of that lone student.

“In this male-dominated field, it can get really frightening to walk into a room and, in the case of the first girl on our team, to see a row of 10 guys staring back at you and no other women there to help support you and lift you up,” Malfi said.

Now, 40% of the robotics team’s 13 subcommittees are led by female students, including Malfi.

Earlier this year, S.H.E. invited alumnae studying in STEM fields to share their experiences on a Zoom call. “It just helps us to hear the stories of other women to uplift the stories of today's women,” Malfi said.

Members of the Great Neck South High School student-run club called S.H.E.: Caylin Wong, Beatrice Malfi, Bernice Wong, Tiffany Zhang and Sophia Chen. Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

Girls Policy Network / Malverne, Uniondale

Malverne and Uniondale high schools may be located only a few miles apart, but a new initiative at both schools has brought some of their teen girls closer.
Together, they want to tackle issues they see in their communities, from road and playground safety to gender equality in sports and academics.

“This has really opened my eyes,” said Malverne High School sophomore Makayla Boubert, 16. “I was worried that nothing was going to change. But now by being with a group of girls who have the same passion now, I am going to take this opportunity … [to help make change].”

The two schools are part of the Girls Policy Network, which launched this school year. Their first meeting was facilitated by nonprofit Voice4Equity — a student leadership program that helps students, particularly girls of color, to develop attainable equity goals in their schools and communities.

The group has opened up a safe space for all the girls in our school to talk about the issues in our community and those that we see in our school.  -Nirvana Cole, 17, senior at Malverne High

The group of teen girls from each school has met three times to come up with a platform. They plan to work on ways to better the community and have heard from women leaders of color and other notable figures. They are scheduled to attend a leadership conference in Washington, D.C., on Friday.

"I hope I can further develop my confidence and have a positive impact on my neighborhood by designing, leading, funding and implementing social change projects with my peers," said Uniondale 10th-grader Zahara Saintyl, who turned 16 on Tuesday.

Nationwide, only 27% of congressional seats are filled by women, 27% of school superintendents are women, and 20% of businesses are owned by women, according to Voice4Equity, which is based in Vancouver, Washington.

Stacie Reid, director of guidance at Uniondale High School who advises the group, said the girls are learning “how to utilize their voices to create impactful change.” Also, they are gaining a sense of self and the “importance of service for themselves and for others.”

The local students are tackling issues including road safety in their communities, student union initiatives, and gender equality in sports, extracurriculars and academics. Seven girls are from Malverne and about 13 are from Uniondale.
“The group has opened up a safe space for all the girls in our school to talk about the issues in our community and those that we see in our school,” said Nirvana Cole, 17, a senior at Malverne High.
Future plans for the Girls Policy Network include communicating their ideas to the Malverne Board of Education, the NAACP and local government officials.

“These girls are inspiring,” said Rebecca Gottesman, the Malverne district’s director of school counseling who advises the group.

For participants, meeting with teen girls of color from other schools is an added benefit, and they believe the program should be extended so other schools on Long Island can experience similar partnerships.

“The bond we have with Uniondale, even though we just met them, is very strong,” said Alyssa Lafaille, 16, a junior at Malverne. “Oftentimes we feel like we are all alone, but we are really not.”

Uniondale schools Superintendent Monique Darrisaw-Akil speaks with club members, from left, Zahara Saintyl, Valentina Goris and Alysia Eason at Uniondale High School. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

Malverne High School students and Girls Policy Network members, from left, Makayla Boubert, Coleene Elias, Nyiree Blagrove, Melanie Clement, Savannah Green, Alyssa Lafaille and Nirvana Cole. Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

Ladies of Dodd / Freeport

At J.W. Dodd Middle School in Freeport, they are known as the Ladies of Dodd.

The Ladies are made up of roughly two dozen seventh- and eighth-graders. Anabela Petris-Anderson, who joined the club last fall, described it as a place of service and sisterhood.

“I know I wanted to spread positivity. And I can get closer to the other girls in the school,” the 12-year-old said. “This is perfect for me.”

The group was founded in 2005 by Vashti Burke, a music teacher who remains the club adviser, and Gisselle Campbell-Ham, who’s become Freeport High School’s principal.

“I’ve had many girls come through these doors,” Burke said. “It’s survived 19 years because at the core of every young woman is a strong, amazing person.”

Over the years, group members have hosted events and met weekly during the school year. Beginning in 2019, the students collected handbags of toiletries and cosmetics to donate to Bethany House, a Baldwin-based nonprofit that helps homeless women transition to stability. Burke said the idea is that the women could continue to use the handbags after the toiletries are finished.

The club will continue to collect the items until the end of the month and plans to deliver them in early April, Burke said.

Morghan Karl, 13 and the group’s president, noted that while March honors women’s contributions in American history, such recognition should not be limited to a certain time frame.

“It’s not just in a month but every day,” she said.

Anabela Petris-Anderson, left, and Morghan Karl, right, both members of the Ladies of Dodd, help collect gently used handbags and fill them with necessities. Credit: Danielle Silverman

By Dandan Zou and Joie Tyrrell