Popping my gum, pretending to be a bit more at ease than I was, I faced a room full of teenage girls. I was inappropriately dressed: spaghetti-strap cami with hot pink bra straps blaring from my shoulders, flip-flops on my feet, and hair haphazardly thrown into some sorry excuse for a bun on the top of my head. This is not a look I rock often – certainly never in a professional environment – but I was making a point.
What point, exactly? The importance of self-presentation. How not to make a first impression. At HERricane*, the Arlington Office of Emergency Management’s inaugural emergency management camp for girls, my co-teacher, Sadina, and I were to lead a session on confidence, poise and self-awareness for a group of 13 to 17-year-old girls.
Let’s unpack that a little. These girls committed a week of their summer vacation to exploring emergency preparedness and management: how to use a fire extinguisher, how to use an AED, and how to lead a press conference if you are the county executive or press contact for an emergency event. While other teens are off playing video games or hanging out with their parents on a beach, these 24 young women took time from their prized summer vacations to actively learn more about emergency management, its importance to their families and communities, and the various options it offers those who choose it as a career path. Before we ever stepped into that classroom, we already knew these young ladies were different – and in very special ways. (One young woman told us that, after this camp, she was excited to be going to a three-week neuroscience camp…for the second year in a row. Sadina, a successful attorney, and I immediately felt disturbingly like under-achievers.)
Interacting with the girls informally during a break before our session, we quickly learned that while whatever it was that drove them to dedicate a week to emergency management certainly made them special, they were still very much teenage girls: the room was awash with giggles, texting and sharing notes on mobile phones. We kept that informality as our session began, engaging them to see what they had learned during their first day of camp. I kept my gum a-snapping and my demeanor extremely casual; Sadina, in a fashionable suit, quietly demonstrated relaxed but professional body language. After a few minutes, we asked the girls what they had observed about each of us. I was delighted as they began to contrast Sadina’s professional presentation with my very inappropriate one. Ultimately, the girls decided that my demeanor was disrespectful and unprofessional, which was precisely what we had hoped they would conclude! As I donned a cardigan and ditched the flip-flops for a pair of black pumps, we started down the path toward a better understanding of what confidence, poise and self-awareness are and how women of any age could harness these qualities to their advantage, both in school and in their personal lives.
So many things struck me throughout those much-too-quick 45 minutes. The ethnic and cultural diversity across the room was remarkable, and no single ethnicity dominated. African-American, Middle Eastern, Asian, Latino, Caucasian, you name it – all were present and all engaged easily with each other and us. Additionally, rising 8th graders and rising high school seniors interacted with each other seamlessly. Twice we mistook 13-year-olds to be high school upperclassmen due to the girls’ extremely impressive vocabularies and articulate, well-considered points. Trying to help an adolescent girl learn to be comfortable in her own skin is a difficult undertaking – painful self-consciousness and striving to fit in, to not be different, are often the hallmarks of a girl’s teenage years. However, sowing the seeds for such personal confidence can never begin too early, and we are hopeful that a few of those seeds found deep, fertile soil for a long, fruitful germination.
As Sadina and I walked to the parking lot following the closing ceremony later that week – which had been preceded, impressively, by a brief networking reception during which each girl had to actively initiate conversation with five adults – we marveled at this inspiring group of young women with whom we had been privileged to interact. I thought to myself, if this is what the next generation of female emergency managers looks like, we are in excellent hands. I am eager to see how their influence and involvement shapes the future of emergency management.
Intermedix is a proud supporter of HERricane