Harvard's Lindsay Hyde grows girls' self-esteem
By John Lamothe, associate editor
History is filled with well-known examples of strong female leaders: Joan of Arc, Mother Theresa, Sally Ride...Lindsay Hyde? You’ve probably never heard of Hyde, but just give this Harvard University junior a few years and she’ll make sure you know not only her name but the name of every women leader throughout history.
Hyde, 20, is the founder, director, and grant writer for “Strong Women, Strong Girls” (SWSG), a non-profit, after-school program that pairs young adult women with small groups of low-income, minority, and at-risk girls in grades three through five. The curriculum, created by Hyde, uses the study of historical female leaders to develop critical thinking, leadership skills, and most importantly, self-esteem in young girls who may not have strong female role models. “It’s important for girls to have role models to look up to,” Hyde says. “They need people that they can say, ‘If Sally Ride can become an astronaut, and this is how she did it, chances are I can do something similar in my life.’”
But to tell Hyde’s story correctly, you have to travel back to her freshman year in high school, long before she conceived of Strong Women, Strong Girls. Her journey toward a life of community service was sparked by terrible news: Hyde’s grandmother would go blind if she didn’t receive a corneal transplant. “The information the doctors sent home with us about organ donation was very technical. A lot of the things they were trying to explain I didn’t understand as a freshman in high school,” she says. “As I shared my experiences with my friends at school, they also said it was something totally out of the realm of anything they had ever dealt with.”
With the thought of her grandmother in the back of her mind and a desire to inform her fellow students, Hyde created the Organ Donor Project. The project’s purpose was to provide easy, accessible, high-quality information to teenagers about the need for organ donation. Hyde wrote an organ donation education curriculum for grades 3 through 12. Then, she kicked off the project with a three-day event at her high school including a speaker’s day, several pep rallies, and a fundraising paintball tournament that raised money for the Miami Organ Procurement Program. With a large grant from the Burger King Corporation to produce an informational video and with funding from Hoffman-La Roche Laboratories to publish a workbook, the Organ Donor Project curriculum now has spread across the country and into schools in Malaysia, Australia, the United Kingdom, and Ireland.
“My grandmother did in fact receive her corneal transplant, and as a result, was able to watch me walk across the stage on my graduation day,” she says. Although the Organ Donor Project was a huge success, Hyde noticed something very troubling while she worked to get students involved in her program. “The boys in my classes had confidence that they could do as good a job, if not better, than I had done, but the girls usually said, ‘I think it’s really great what you’re doing, but I don’t think I could do it,’” she says. This lack of confidence led to Hyde questioning why many girls seem to have a low self-esteem, and in the summer between her junior and senior year in high school, she created the Strong Women, Strong Girls curriculum.
“Throughout my life, I’ve had tremendously strong female role models,” Hyde says. “I’ve always had someone around to tell me, ‘You can do it; I believe in you.’ I realized that that’s not something every girl has in her life.” For that reason, Hyde created a program that not only teaches young girls the skills needed to succeed but also gives them tangible role models to look up to. Each SWSG class begins with the girls learning about a historical woman leader who exemplifies one of the program’s 10 “countdown-to-success” skills—critical thinking, cultural sensitivity, proper etiquette, communication skills, etc. Then, the students participate in a project-based learning activity that teaches the skill being covered. Every class concludes with a journal activity where the girls write to a prompt. “If girls can develop this skill-set of 10 skills, they’ll have the tools necessary to feel confident in the classroom, to feel confident in their extracurricular activities, and to feel like they’re able to express themselves,” Hyde says.
As a senior, Hyde ran SWSG at a local elementary school and received rave reviews from faculty and members of the local community. However, it wasn’t until the following year when Hyde moved to Harvard that the program really took off. “In just two years, the program has grown from one site to eight in and around Boston, and the number of Harvard students volunteering has grown accordingly,” says Judith Kidd, Harvard’s assistant dean of public service.
The Phillips Brooks House Association, the governing body for Harvard’s extensive community-service program, organizes 2,000 students in student-led service projects, some dating back 20 years. SWSG, however, is the only program in the association’s 100-year history to be accepted from a freshman. “The curriculum enhances the girls’ ability to develop self-respect, which is the heart of learning to be a strong young woman,” says Maria Dominguez, a deputy director of PBHA.
Hyde’s skills in fund-raising, grant writing, and organization have helped her expand SWSG quickly without losing quality. “Harvard has a strong tradition of student-led public service, and within that tradition, Lindsay really stands out,” Kidd says. “She’s a superb manager. Even with all the other things she’s doing on campus—running a myriad of volunteers, keeping track of the different schools where the program is—she’s very organized. She could be a head of a Fortune 500 company with those types of skills.”
But Hyde’s motivation behind creating and running SWSG has nothing to do with building her resume to run a billion-dollar company. “Sometimes, the more driven students in the service world worry me. You never know what their motivation is,” Dominguez says. “But as I’ve gotten to know Lindsay more, I’ve realized how genuine her motivations are. Helping the girls is ultimately her goal.” On top of doing everything it takes to run a large service project, Hyde finds the time to mentor a group of SWSG girls herself. “It comes down to making decisions about what’s most significant,” Hyde says. “I feel most passionate about my kids. They’re with me for such a short period of time, and I feel I have a very limited window to make a huge impact on them.”
Hyde isn’t planning on expanding into any more schools in her last two years at Harvard, but she is creating an “SWSG: Year Two and Three” curriculum so that the girls who graduate from the first year can continue on in the program. Ultimately, Hyde plans to turn SWSG into an independent, non-profit organization. She’s currently creating the infrastructure and building the connections with leaders in the Boston area that will aid in making a smooth transition once she is out of school.
It may be surprising that Hyde has accomplished so much at such a young age, but she credits her success to a very simple strategy. “You have to be very enthusiastic about whatever you’re doing. My mom calls it the Tom Sawyer approach,” she says. “If you get excited about it, so will everyone else. And that’s a great way to get people involved.”
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