Through education, potential explodes, opportunities abound and futures burn bright. With a goal of sparking excitement in the possibilities available through higher education, a caravan of 30 fourth, fifth and sixth grade girls travelled to the University of Florida College of Education eager to experience a day in the life of a Florida Gator.

Girlfriends of Pinellas County is a program designed to foster a supportive environment of friendship and mentorship for young girls to flourish. Coordinators of Girlfriends at two St. Petersburg, Florida, Title 1 elementary schools reached out to the College of Education to schedule an opportunity for students to learn and explore not only what it means to be a college student, but a student at UF.

Marlene Warren, the assistant coordinator for Girlfriends of Melrose Elementary School, shared Girlfriends introduces supports to young girls to help them build strong, healthy relationships with role models, peers and with themselves. As they establish and strengthen those relationships, they grow self-discipline, improve their self-esteem and discover independence.

“I love doing what I do with the girls,” Warren said, “and they’re motivated by what we help them with.”

At the heart of Girlfriends, is a mission to encourage young girls to realize the boundlessness of their potential. This often involves providing opportunities to explore a broader lense of possibility for the future.

“We start them off so early – with the college education background – so they have something to look forward to,” Warren said.

Candice Nyarkoh, coordinator for Girlfriends of Fairmont Park Elementary School, shared many of her students have limited knowledge of the paths to success accessible to them. Much of their exposure is limited to that of their families, and many of the girls do not have relatives who have attended high school or college. Thus, the idea of one day pursuing higher education often seems daunting.

“A lot of our girls are not exposed to this type of lifestyle,” Nyarkoh said. “And so being here today is really, really good… I have a lot to talk about when we go back.”
Nyarkoh hopes that by traveling to several colleges and universities across the state, the girls will be able to envision themselves there and feel empowered to dream big.  

“We wanted to give them [a] top notch experience,” she said, “and get their brains thinking and imagining ‘Wow. This is what I could be.’”

With the support of Caitlin Gallingane, clinical assistant professor in the School of Teaching and Learning, the group, which also included former Girlfriends of Melrose students currently in middle school, received the full Gator experience.

They toured the UF campus stopping to explore several noteworthy Gator landmarks including the “French Fries” sculpture, the J. Wayne Reitz Union, the Ben Hill Griffin Stadium and wrapped up with lunch at the Gator Corner Dining Hall. Following, they had the opportunity to visit the Education Library and view a 3D printing presentation, leaving with a keepsake – a 3D-printed gator head eraser.

“We want them to think about the idea of going to college as a pleasurable, enjoyable, desirable thing to do,” Gallingane said.

Further, the girls had the opportunity to speak with current UF students and learn about their experiences in college. They concluded the day by becoming an Education student for a moment and participating in an undergraduate science course working alongside current students to conduct a science experiment.
Gallingane shared the girls are at a prime moment in their lives where peer pressure can become a larger factor in decision-making. By catching them early, she hopes to leave them with a positive experience they can reflect back on that proves college is not a scary place nor is it out of reach.

“Hopefully, [they] hang on to that for the next few years,” she said.