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Interview with Executive Director, Coastal Studies For Girls

Photo courtesy of Coastal Studies For Girls

At Coastal Studies For Girls (CSG), teens have the opportunity to reinvent themselves as they step away from traditional academic studies and enter a world that is unique - full of discovery and empowerment. They become re-inspired, rejuvenated and renewed.

Marine science alone, seems fitting for the trailblazer who longs for adventure, but the programs at CSG offer so much more. The students are surrounded by nature, a strong sense of community and they develop connections with the small circle of students that attend each semester. Girls become empowered and enriched by an environmentally conscious lifestyle. It is a program that offers more than a STEM curriculum but provides a haven for starved future innovators.

Women For Action:  Pam tell me about you and what led to establishing Coastal Studies For Girls?

Pam Erickson: Coastal Studies for Girls was a dream of mine for over ten years before becoming a reality. It has been the work of many hearts, hands, minds and souls in the most powerful, collective, passionate effort I’ve ever been fortunate enough to be involved in.

What led to the establishment of CSG was twofold. The first is my own feeling of limitation as a young girl. I grew up in a small, rural, conservative, Lutheran, straight, white, linear, male and under-resourced part of Northern Wisconsin in the late 1960’s and 70’s. While my Mother is still the strongest woman I know, her path (and my early path) were heavily dominated and controlled by the men in our family and society’s expectations of women. A voice in my gut told me there was more out there, but it did not come easily. My work of creating CSG is to help young women find out – much earlier than I did – that they are capable of anything!

Secondly, in my career (after I left Wisconsin and moved East), I worked with many girls in middle school and high school who wanted more. CSG was a response to their voices of capability, creativity, intelligence and passion.

Women For Action:  What was your initial objective for CSG’s program and do you think you’ve reached that?

Pam Erickson: My initial objective for CSG was to help young women discover themselves. To be another force in their life who encouraged them to listen to themselves, to help them FIND and USE their voice and to DISCOVER that they have a choice. Do I think we’ve reached that? Absolutely. 140 “Triumphant Girls” (what we call our graduates) are now out in the world, Semester #11 is with us now, and we’re beginning the 6th year of this work. A new chapter is on the horizon for CSG; we are the only science and leadership semester school for girls in the United States. And yet we’re far from done! We've only just begun. We need to explore how to expand and reach more girls. Our ultimate goal is that the school will house 32 girls, we will basically be doubling in size.

Women For Action:  In CSG’s bio, it stated that the program is for girls in their 10th grade year. Why 10th grade?

Pam Erickson: Tenth grade was an intentional choice because of the pivotal place girls are in during their sophomore year of high school. They are no longer freshmen, they are not caught up in the whirlwind of all that comes with being a junior and haven’t “moved on” as many seniors do. They’re alive, curious, open and willing. The intention is to plant some seeds so that the choices they make as high school Juniors and Seniors regarding course work, college, career, and life thereafter, has been positively influenced by their four-month immersion on the Maine coast.

Women For Action:  Is there a criterion for acceptance? If so, what are you looking for when you are adopting new girls into the program?

Pam Erickson: Our criteria include thoughtful essay responses to a series of questions, a transcript (their grades don’t need to be 4.0, but the program is academically rigorous so we want to do our best to ensure that girls are successful and can keep up, so decent grades are important). We also require an academic recommendation, a parent recommendation and a character recommendation from a coach or other mentor in their life. Many girls also visit the school, though at this point an in-person visit isn’t required, but sometimes recommended. Girls who are open, curious, and willing are successful here!

Women For Action:  How many girls are accepted into CSG’s program a year?

Pam Erickson: At this point we only have space for 15 girls a semester, 30 per year. We’re also launching summer programs for middle schools girls in science and leadership, as well as the Educator’s Workshops and a Women’s Coastal Retreat (adults are hungry for what we are offering as well!).

Women For Action:  Why do you think it’s necessary for CSG to maintain an all-girls school program versus it being coed, yet adopting a system to ensure girls have fair entry too?

Pam Erickson: There are a dozen of other really great semester school options for co-ed groups. All of us are part of The Semester School Network. Various schools are scattered around the country and all have a powerful presence in a different geographic location. We share the passion for experiential education, but each of us has a focus on a particular area beyond that. Given the status of girls and women as it relates to STEM, equal pay, visibility in politics, corporate and world leadership, it is obvious why a school with a focus on girls exists! When we educate girls, the world benefits.

Women For Action:  What sort of success rate does CSG have?

Pam Erickson: Our success rate takes on many different forms. Girls who graduate from here take higher level high school courses, apply for more summer programs, receive more scholarships, & internships, they volunteer, they apply for college, and they make a difference in the world. They are more confident and more capable in ANY discipline they choose.

Women For Action:  Tell me about your most successful student/students?

Pam Erickson: Our most successful students take the lessons we’ve shared and the seeds we’ve planted and use them in all aspects of their lives. We have alum who start high school clubs or programs, those who win national essay contests in Ocean Awareness, those who present at National and International Marine Science Events, those who receive scholarships to top colleges, those who travel the world or make a difference at home. We’re INCREDIBLY proud of our alumnae!

We’re unique because we’re the only semester school in the United States doing this work with girls.

Women For Action:  What makes CSG unique is that it is “residential semester science school in the country that offers a single-gender setting”. Why do you think your program is more efficient than others?

Pam Erickson: We’re unique because we’re the only semester school in the United States doing this work with girls. We immerse our students in 4 months of intense living. They emerge with a better understanding of themselves. They press “pause” at an absolutely critical time in their lives. Seventy percent are from public schools and 30% are from independent schools. We’ve served 21+ states and 2 countries. Girls sit in a closing circle at the end of the day with someone from Queens, rural Maine, Dallas, Hawaii, Colorado, Rhode Island and Minnesota. They work their hearts, their minds, their bodies and their souls. They live in community and they give back through service. They start the day with a morning solo on the shore of the ocean to get grounded and set their intention for the day, they eat locally sourced foods and have limits on sugar and technology. They engage in discussion and work through interpersonal challenges. They speak publicly at a Coffeehouse, they do real marine research, make public presentations and they pull it all together at the end of their semester with a “Personal Manifesto.” They live under the Cornerstones of 1) Intention 2) Solitude and Reflection, 3) Community, 4) Challenge, 5) Action, 6) Lifelong Learning and 7) Gratitude.

Women For Action:  Do you feel there should be more schools like CSG? Why or why not?

Pam Erickson: Absolutely! This is how education should be. This work makes a lasting difference. Rather than our focus on X number of students, CSG takes this model and turns it 180 degrees with a focus on intensity, immersion and depth. The power is in digging in, and digging deep!

Women For Action:  Which do you think is the most instrumental part of the program at CSG?

Pam Erickson: Which part is the most instrumental? The blend of marine science and leadership, because we learn the hard skills and the soft ones. We don’t just teach facts but we explore, we feel and we help girls to fill their bag of leadership tools and skills to apply in many different disciplines. The girls live together in the “Little Yellow Farmhouse” and they understand what it means to be a steward of self, others and the world. And we don’t stop connecting with them once they graduate. Our alumnae network is vibrant and active! Girls realize they’re part of a greater community once their semester is over. They will always be “Triumphant Girls!”

Women For Action:  What sort of feedback have you been receiving from parents?

Pam Erickson: Parents are very happy with having loaned us their precious cargo for 4 months. After our 10 day “communication and technology moratorium” at the beginning of each semester (when girls focus solely on themselves and their community before contacting home) then parents can call or Skype to peek in on CSG life. They are invited to mid semester presentations called “Family and Friends Day” and they are invited to a number of other public events as well. We also do a forum with them at the end of the semester to help them transition their daughter back into school and life. Our parents are amazing people, incredibly supportive, and want what is best for their daughters. To sum it up, a recent parent said, “We sent you a sparrow and you sent us back an eagle.”

Women For Action:  How does Coastal Study For Girls deal with diversity?

Pam Erickson: We’re pleased to report that our socioeconomic, ethnic and geographic diversity has exceeded even our own expectations! We work with girls from Los Angeles, Northern Wisconsin, Brooklyn, coastal Maine, and with girls from home schooled, public, charter and independent schools. We’ve offered significant scholarship support in our early years to launch the school and tuition has spanned the spectrum.

Women For Action:  Pam, most women and girls have dealt with some sort of girl on girl violence and/or bullying during their school years. How does CSG deal with peer engagement and promote healthy girl to girl relationships which ultimately enhances women and girl’s empowerment?

Pam Erickson: We focus a significant amount of time on this! Just this last Friday night we all watched Mean Girls together, which serves as a conversation starter in our Leadership course. Our leadership focus is intentional, and we have created a course solely on that! Not many schools actually dedicate time to this topic, the most critical of all. We do Council, we do sessions on positive psychology and effective communication, we learn how to give and receive feedback, we do closing circle each night, we have “leaders of the day,” we snowshoe, canoe, kayak and backpack, we camp and we do a 5k and a Yoga Health and Wellness Retreat, along with weekly Yoga in our Yurt. We eat healthy, we clean up our dorm space together, we give back to the community (examples are a nearby homeless shelter, a local state park, or the Freeport Historical Society or Community Center). And we have a powerful presence in our Residential Life Team who are young women (college graduates) that live in the farmhouse alongside the students. The girls are surrounded by positive role models around every corner. And so it’s not one single thing that builds community, but the convergence of ALL of these things. The girls work on a “Community Agreement” in their first week here and present that to the entire school. They check in regularly about HOW they are treating one another. It’s in our culture. We work TOGETHER. And we don’t accept anything less.

Women For Action:  What sort of advice would you lend to a girl reading this interview who thinks all science is boring?

Pam Erickson: Science is about exploring and expanding! If someone finds it boring or limiting, it’s quite likely because their previous experience was in a classroom with 4 walls or from a text book. At CSG, science is about discovering who you are through the world around you. It’s about caring for our oceans and being a steward of the Earth. It’s about getting muddy or listening to someone talk about their life journey as a woman and a scientist, it’s about engaging with yourself through what is around you. To make a positive difference in the world.

Immersed in a powerful combination of science and leadership education, CSG inspires girls and women to create joyful lives, vibrant communities and a more connected world!



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Julene Allen