By Jenny Morgan
In Texas, one alumna is helping girls navigate the pressures that come with growing up. On the side, she founded a network for Amherst women.
[Social Action] When Amanda Villarreal ’12 tells women about the Girls Empowerment Network of Austin, the reaction she gets is almost universal.
“People say to me, ‘I really wish I had something like that when I was younger.’”
The Austin, Texas, native knows where they’re coming from. Villarreal (left) became a mentor with the organization—which helps 6,000 girls each year “navigate the unique pressures of girlhood”—while in high school, because she wanted to be the role model she never had.
Growing up, Villarreal saw some of her closest friends and relatives struggle with school, teenage pregnancy and substance abuse. She was determined to find a career in which she could help girls in similar situations.
“I thought if I could help people individually, and make them feel better about themselves, they wouldn’t get into [those situations],” she says. “I had never heard of the term ‘feminism’ before I came to Amherst. I had sociology classes that touched on gender, and I started to see that the problems my friends and family faced were much bigger than personal decision-making.”
Through Amherst’s Center for Community Engagement, she tutored kids at Girls Inc. of Holyoke and became manager for all of the college’s Girls Inc. volunteers.
After graduation she moved to Washington, D.C., where she worked for Girls Inc. at the national level and then for the American Association of University Women and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
“Around 60 percent of the girls we work with are Latina. I see myself in a lot of them,” Villarreal says.
Photo courtesy of GenAustin
“In D.C., I felt a connectedness to the women’s community that I didn’t feel at Amherst,” she says. Among other things, this network meant she could afford to work for nonprofits in an expensive city: one woman invited Villarreal to live rent-free in her basement.
Inspired, Villarreal founded the Amherst Women’s Network last year. She also helped establish an on-campus mentorship program to connect older and younger female students.
Villarreal is now the outreach specialist for the Girls Empowerment Network of Austin. She’s planning its annual conference, where she’ll lead a body-image workshop in Spanish. “There are usually less Latinas represented in mainstream girls’ and women’s empowerment initiatives,” she says. “Around 60 percent of the girls we work with are Latina. I see myself in a lot of them.”
The Amherst Women’s Network
Villareal founded the Amherst Women’s Network in 2013 to provide structured opportunities for networking, mentoring and conversation among female students and alumnae.
Its blog—awnword.org—is an online forum for female students and alumnae. Conny Morrison ’12, Andrea Park ’12, Jess Hendel ’12 and Kristin Ouellette ’12 spearheaded the blog as members of the Boston AWN.
The network’s on-campus organization is run by Hannah Greenwald ’14, Meghan McCafferty ’14, Leilani Webb ’14 and Shruthi Badri ’16. Under their leadership, the network has matched 28 first-year women with upperclass female mentors, organized a mixer to help first-year women meet women from other classes and held a “meet and greet” for students and young alumnae. Future plans include, among other initiatives, a campaign to encourage women to run for student senate.
Amherst women who’d like to be featured in the blog should email Park at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jenny Morgan is the staff writer at Amherst’s Center for Community Engagement.