When Tyjae Stovall learned she’d spend her summer caring for snakes, raptors and other wild animals at Fontenelle Forest, the teenager — who considered herself “finicky” around wildlife — felt squeamish.
“That wasn’t [my] choice at all. I said, ‘I don’t like nature.’” recalled the high schooler, who planned to pursue law or acting but was sent to Fontenelle Forest by Eureka! after they were unable to place her at her preferred “externship” site (an externship is similar to an internship but designed for minors).
The experience pushed Stovall far beyond her comfort zone — until she fell in love with the animals. Soon to be a high school senior, Stovall is preparing to attend school for veterinary science and start a career rehabilitating wild animals.
“I [formed] relationships with [the animals],” she said. “It didn’t [even] feel like work.”
Helping girls like Stovall discover their dream job is a hallmark of Eureka!, which is offered via the Omaha chapter of Girls Inc., a nationwide nonprofit that educates and mentors 5- to 18-year-old girls from underserved communities.
Like every girl in Eureka!’s five-year program, Stovall applied in seventh grade, snagged one of approximately 30 open spots and spent two summers at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, where she dove into STEM, from building bottle rockets to programming robots. The next two summers, girls venture into the community to develop workplace skills at externships like Stovall’s stint at Fontenelle Forest and earn $500 stipends.
Omaha Girls Inc. Director of Programs Emily Mwaja said Eureka! teaches girls like Stovall, who’s African-American, to navigate being the only Black woman in a room teeming with white people; according to Pew Research Center, 71% of architects and engineers are white, while just 5% are Black. Although not every Girls Inc. girl is a person of color, many are.
“It’s scary [even] as an adult Black woman when you walk in. All eyes are on you,” said Mwaja, who believes STEM careers provide girls from underserved backgrounds opportunities for upward mobility. “We teach girls to be resilient and advocate for themselves, and say ‘I’m bringing to the table what everybody’s bringing to the table, and I am smart, and this is going to be my space.’”
Stovall also learned to swim at Eureka!, where learning to swim, or improving upon existing swimming skills, is mandatory. That’s because, according to Mwaja, girls of color from low-income communities often don’t have access to pools.
“When [Hurricane] Katrina happened, swimming became not a fun thing [to do], but a life-saving skill for Black people,” Mwaja said. “We know that a lot of Black people died during Katrina because they could not [swim].”
In addition to encouraging solidarity among girls — who keep the “sisterhood” strong throughout the school year with group activities — Eureka! partners with businesses and nonprofits where women of color mentor externs. That way, girls like 13-year-old Jayda Lee, an aspiring architect, will know not all scientists are white men.
“We’re changing that [stereotype] as a generation,” Lee said.
Preparing to negotiate a predominately white workplace is essential for all girls in the program, Mwaja said, not just those who are STEM-obsessed; girls can extern at places like law firms and newspapers and put a personal touch on STEM projects. Thirteen-year-old Samarié Alston, for example, is programming an app for journaling.
“I went through a really bad depression, which I’m overcoming … I started journaling, and it helped,” she said. “It’s my passion, and I’m proud of myself.”
Soon, Alston will do what Stovall is now doing in her fifth year of Eureka!: create a resume and apply to colleges with Eureka!’s guidance.
Stovall’s applications will go to programs that prepare her for careers in veterinary science. After five years in Eureka!, she’s ready to own a veterinary clinic and nurse wild animals back to health.
“I can accomplish it, and I’m a young African American girl,” Stovall said. “That’s the goal of Eureka!: To show that anything a man can do, a woman can do. We can be [the] head scientist.”
This story was originally published in the July 2021 print edition of The Reader.