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Hawthorn InvestiGirls program makes college feel ‘more real’

Hawthorn students Lanet Williams, at left, and Lauryn Holmes, center, practice taking each other's blood pressure with Washington University medical student Helen Liljenwall on April 13, 2018.
Shahla Farzan | St. Louis Public Radio

Washington University students are working closely with staff at Hawthorn Leadership School for Girls in north St. Louis to help students succeed academically and introduce them to new experiences.

As part of the InvestiGirls program, Wash U undergraduates provide after-school tutoring and enrichment workshops for Hawthorn students in sixth through ninth grade. The initiative, which is spearheaded by the university’s Gephardt Institute for Civic and Community Engagement, recently completed its third year.

In an enrichment workshop, ninth graders learned about heart anatomy and practiced taking each other’s blood pressure.

“Has anyone had their blood pressure taken at their doctor?” asked Wash U medical student Helen Liljenwall, holding up a blood pressure cuff. “Yeah, it squeezes your arm. I like to call it an arm hug.”

Liljenwall helped Hawthorn student Lanet Williams slip on a blood pressure cuff, while her classmate Lauryn Holmes held a stethoscope to the crook of her elbow.

“Go all the way to 140,” said Liljenwall, pointing to the dial. “We’re going to watch for it to tick. You can feel it pumping, right?”

Across the room, Wash U medical student Kelsey Krus showed the ninth graders how to listen to each other’s heartbeats. She explained that the heart has different chambers, separated by valves, and that your heartbeat is actually the sound of those valves closing.

“You know how you slam a door shut in your house?” Krus asked. “That’s like the same thing that’s happening in your heart. That noise is like the door slamming shut to other rooms.”

The Washington University medical students leading the workshop are members of the American Medical Women’s Association. One of their goals is to help encourage the Hawthorn students’ interest in the medical field. 

Credit Shahla Farzan | St. Louis Public Radio
Hawthorn Leadership School for Girls is Missouri’s first public all-girls charter school. Many of the students will be the first in their family to attend college.

“I think the big takeaway is just trying to expose these young women to older women who are in the medical profession,” Liljenwall said. “I don’t know if they’re going to come away from this with a vast knowledge of physiology of the heart or how to take blood pressure in the future. It’s more about sparking an interest.”

Founded by Mary Danforth Stillman in 2015, Hawthorn Leadership School for Girls is Missouri’s first public all-girls charter school. The curriculum focuses primarily on science, technology, engineering and math (S.T.E.M.) and strongly encourages students to consider attending college.  

Many of the Hawthorn students will be the first in their families to go to college, said Principal Robyn Wiens. As a result, it’s important to help the middle schoolers develop a more concrete idea of what it means to be a college student.

“It can seem like a very abstract, distant experience that they don’t have a lot of personal connection to,” Wiens said. “The more that we can get them interacting with college students, it makes it so much more real to them.”

Wash U senior and InvestiGirls coordinator Rachel Harris plans the enrichment workshops and trains after-school tutors. She said one of the most rewarding parts of the job has been working closely with Hawthorn staff to tailor programs to students’ needs.

“It feels like a really mutually beneficial relationship that always has the potential for a lot of growth, which I feel like is very special,” said Harris, who plans to pursue a career in urban education. “We’re both so committed to making this relationship work.”

The InvestiGirls program wraps up this week for the 2017-2018 school year. The program will resume in September 2018.

Follow Shahla on Twitter: @shahlafarzan

Shahla Farzan is a PhD ecologist and science podcast editor at American Public Media. She was previously a reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.