UVU students travel to Washington state to learn firsthand about women in leadership


Lessons in leadership, the importance of pursuing your passion, and the ability of individuals to make a positive change in society were among the transformative teachings that impacted a dozen Utah Valley University students on a recent trip to Washington state.

The “Women Lead” cohort, from UVU’s Women’s Success Center, was invited to participate in the trip as part of the Advancement of Leadership program. Their experience included significant meetings and networking opportunities with several business leaders, but it was time with Days for Girls, a nonprofit organization with strong UVU ties, that left the greatest impression.

Eili Erickson, a senior at UVU, who is interested in a career in nonprofit, said Celeste Mergens’ passion is palpable. Mergens is the CEO of Days for Girls. In 2008, she was assisting a family foundation near Nairobi, Kenya, when she realized the negative impact the inability to manage periods was having on schooling, and its connection to poverty. She started Days for Girls to provide feminine hygiene solutions that have since reached more a million girls in more than 125 countries, allowing them to continue their educations and live lives of dignity.

“To see a woman who genuinely just a saw a problem and decided she was going to make a difference, her passion lit up the room.” Erickson said. “We have lots of powerful people in the world with plenty of success, but I really valued hearing them share about conquering barriers and overcoming difficulties. It brought their leadership to life.”

Jolene Merica, assistant director of the Women’s Success Center, said working with Days for Girls provided students with the opportunity to immerse in an organization that was female-originated and female-driven. Because of UVU’s ongoing relationship with the Days for Girls organization, Merica said they felt like they had an opportunity to benefit the Women Lead cohort.

“They were able to meet with women who had chosen Days for Girls as their cause,” Merica said. “They were able to see women who said, ‘This is my passion, this is my cause. This is why we do it, this is how we do it.’ They saw different styles of leadership, they saw how to come up with an idea and bring that idea to life. It gave them a vision of what it means to be philanthropic, and what it means to give of their time and resources.”

Preparation for the experience in Washington state began months ago at Utah Valley University. The women participated in a class taught by Merica, which included an online program to begin their certification process to become ambassadors for women’s health (a requirement for distributing feminine hygiene kits). This training was later completed in Washington state at the Days for Girls headquarters with Mergens. According to Merica, the class was designed to get the girls up to speed on what Days for Girls is.

"We brought in some of the local chapter leaders from the state of Utah," Merica said. “We brought in a student who showed us how to do a training. We divided them into teams and gave them the opportunity for a mini-leadership experience.”

The “Women Lead” cohort also took the importance of the organization to heart, holding a service project at Utah Valley University last October. During the event, they assembled feminine hygiene kits to be used by Days for Girls. UVU students were invited to attend and help assemble the kits. More than 100 participants produced 478 kits that were sent to countries around the world. They also generated awareness about the need for what they were creating, which spread through television and newspaper coverage.

Shelby Stoddard, a freshman interested in studying special education, attended the event from start to finish. She was impressed by the involvement of the campus community.

“There were a lot of kids on campus who would only have 10 minutes in between classes, but they’d still have the motivation and desire to sit down for those 10 minutes, fold a couple liners, and then leave. Everyone is so willing to help on this campus,” she said.

Stoddard was responsible for providing her cohort with the opportunity to visit the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation while in Washington, another student, Jessica Mohammad, organized a visit to Amazon headquarters.

“I think the most important thing I've learned about leadership, as a whole, is that to truly become successful you need to find something you're passionate about. All of these women were persistent and passionate, and it was incredible to see that, because of their efforts, they were all able to get themselves to where they are today,” Stoddard said.

According to Eili Erickson, leadership lessons were not limited to the executives that inspired them. “I wasn’t going into it expecting to learn so much from my peers,” she said. “It really provided insight to me that everyone around you has leadership and manifests it in many different ways, and it’s important for us to recognize that and grow together.”

This conversation on leadership continues. “We’ll spend the next few weeks of the class focusing on what they learned about leadership through this experience,” Merica said.

Now that they’re certified ambassadors for women’s health, the women are planning to find and teach community groups about what they have learned.