Age: 17
North Monterey County High School
Program: Girls, Inc.

“I think if I wouldn’t have been a youth leader, I probably wouldn’t have applied at all to be in a cabinet position. So it kind of is like a chain reaction or a domino effect.”

Two years ago Yesenia witnessed her mother’s epileptic seizure. The seizure coincided with Yesenia’s entrance into high school and contributed to an already heightened anxiety she attributes to low self-esteem. After trying to play sports and feeling unsuccessful, Yesenia joined Girls Inc.

I joined Girls Inc. because I wanted to be with all girls. I almost went to another after school program, but my parents said, ‘No.’ Partly, I wanted to learn more about reproductive health…. I wanted a sisterhood, because I only have a younger brother at home. The youth leaders there became my role models…. I think you need that if you don’t have an older sibling.”

When we meet Yesenia it is summer and she is busy. She is enrolled in a summer camp where she is learning guitar and art; she is also participating in Upward Bound where she is taking classes for college credit and learning Japanese. In addition she has been studying for her church confirmation for two years and is excited that her confirmation date is only a few days away. Earlier in the year she was chosen as a Girls Inc. leader.

Over the course of documentation year Yesenia’s journal entries focus almost entirely on leadership values and practices. Despite her many achievements between middle school and high school, Yesenia still struggles with low self-esteem. She is learning to overcome this by forging her own kind of ‘quiet’ leadership which she says allows her to focus on her own strengths instead of trying to imitate the leadership styles of her peers.

I want to encourage others to use their voice[s], to stand up for themselves.

She goes on to describe her preference of supporting others in the classroom and her desire to see more introverted students acknowledged for contributions and participation that look different than their more extraverted peers.

[Leadership] is not just about standing on top of people at the bottom of a pyramid. It’s about helping people at the bottom to climb up.

In June 2015 Yesenia is a few days from completing her junior year. She has run for student body president and won. Though she says she still suffers from low self-confidence, she now believes this is not dissimilar to most girls her age — since most girls sometimes feel a little bit weird and socially awkward. In an interview she confides that it might be these aspects of her experience, and her willingness to talk about them, that most made her accessible to the students who voted for her.

In addition to leadership skills, Yesenia credits Girls Inc. with helping her to become more comfortable with her body image — something she has struggled with in the past. Yesenia was diagnosed as pre-diabetic in the 8th grade and over the past five years she has worked hard to achieve and maintain a healthy weight and body image.

My cousins are skinnier than I am. I saw what they could do, that I couldn’t and that made me feel bad. This year [junior year of high school], I’m thinking it’s not a comparison. I have what I need to be happy. Why am I looking at other people’s happiness and putting myself down? [Other] People have other problems…. I’m happy in my body right now. GHGH showed us that everyone is different. There is no Barbie-shaped person. No such thing as perfect. I tell myself every day that I’m okay the way I am.

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