Gender and Connected (After-School) Learning: Understanding “Can-Do” Girlhood (Part 2)


July 2, 2013

PROJECTS: The Digital Edge

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In my previous post on this topic, I introduced Michelle, a Freeway High School (FHS) student who now attends an elite private university on the east coast. In that piece, I utilized the framework of “can-do” and “at-risk” girlhood (posed by Anita Harris in Future Girl) to compare the pathways of two students I analyzed through their after-school engagement – the second case study is below. While I consider both girls to be “can-do” girls in an environment that is understood to be highly “at-risk,” the differences in the pathways traversed by these two girls is noteworthy and suggests that there is no one formula that leads to opportunity, defined here as continuing into higher education.

A Closer Look – Inara

If there were one word to describe Inara it would be fashion. Unlike Michelle, who was involved in numerous school-sponsored and structured after-school endeavors, Inara pursued her passion through more creative and self-made pathways. She was a member of the drill team and had a very extensive peer network, especially within but not exclusively limited to FHS’s Latina community.

Here, I narrow my focus to Inara’s involvement with and founding of a Fashion Club with the help and guidance of her home economics teacher. Inara was not the most driven student; she often found herself in credit recovery, was failing some courses during our fieldwork and “passed her classes, but only through monumental last-minute efforts.” Yet, even so, I would argue that Inara does not fall into the “at-risk” girl categorization.

I contend that Inara’s “can-do” identity stems in large part from her sustained interest in fashion and her opting for an educational environment that had more of a “vocational emphasis.” Additionally, Inara was adept at navigating the politics of her peer and after-school interactions, particularly when it came to drill team. Inara maintained high expectations for herself and her future orientation while at FHS:

Austin Team:  What do you see yourself doing after high school?

Inara:  I see myself going to college, something I want to do, probably somewhere outside of Texas because I really want to travel and I feel like if I go somewhere I want to see and maybe live there, maybe it will be fun, maybe it won’t.  It’s just an experience.  Also, hopefully be a foreign exchange student to another country.

Austin Team:  Through college?

Inara:  Yeah.  And probably hopefully modeling.  I hope modeling could be one of my dreams.  Well, it’s been one of my dreams since I was little.  Hopefully I can go with that, too.

Austin Team:  Like print or runway?

Inara:  Hopefully anything, anything modeling, like photography or runway.  Mostly runway, though.

Austin Team:  That means you have to go to New York or L.A. […]

Inara:  I’ve always been interested in going, even if I wasn’t going for modeling or anything.  The fashion is in both of those states.

Austin Team:  So modeling is your goal?  Do you have other career goals?

Inara:  Fashion design.  It’s all in the fashion industry, basically.  I’ll hopefully study business and start owning my own stores, owning my own clothing line, doing what I want to do.  Not just clothing stuff, but I want to own hotels and restaurants and things.

Austin Team:  So like an empire?

Inara:  Yeah.  Hopefully I can try and do that.  I have a lot of things I want to do. (Protocol: Family)

Though Inara is not as academically inclined as Michelle, she surely shows goal-driven capacities through her passion for modeling and fashion and her desire to leave Texas to pursue a career in fashion design. Her upward trajectory is much more attached to her passion than to academics, yet she acknowledges the need to finish high school in order to move on to her bigger goals and dreams.  Inara has sustained her interest in fashion by studying it, and turning what was an extracurricular interest into an opportunity to cultivate a variety of design, art, and communication skills, while also growing her career-oriented pathways.

Though her pathway to post-secondary education is different from Michelle’s, it is critical to acknowledge the role of mentoring for Inara. Her home economics teacher was a key influence, allowing Inara space at school to explore her passion and spearhead a leadership endeavor – the Fashion Club – that benefited her and other students who shared that particular interest. Moreover, her ability to create a club suggests that the school was open to supporting students who wanted to make their own extra-curricular learning pathways. While Inara was an average student at best, she was still able to create extracurricular and interest-driven opportunities for herself that reflected her interests, skills, and identity.  

Conclusion

For both of these young women, the extracurricular engagements outlined above shaped their “can-do” girl identities. Their extracurricular activities helped foster an environment that supported their development and future orientation. Their peer networks and visibility within them was also critical to their “can-do” girlhood.

One unifier of these two girls is their passion, their tenacity, and their goal-oriented nature. Without these qualities, they could have easily been lost in the assumed “at-risk” environment prevalent at FHS. The “system” did not work in the same way for Michelle and Inara, yet they both have been able to pursue their post-secondary educational ambitions. Nor do I think the system should have worked in the same way for each of them, as each pathway was established under distinct familial, social, and educational circumstances. An important take-away from these case studies is that there are multiple pathways to success and “can-do” girlhood that can stem from the same school. By exploring the experience of students like Michelle and Inara in greater depth, our work will illuminate possibilities for “can-do” opportunities in a place overwhelmed by “at-risk” barriers.