Girls and Money

  • September 1, 2016

It’s 9:30 a.m. on an overcast summer morning at Cal State East Bay, and approximately 100 soon-to-be eighth- and ninth-grade girls are gathered for roll call outside the College of Science. They’re members of Girls Inc. of Alameda County, the largest affiliate of a national nonprofit dedicated to empowering young women to go to college, and each year, they descend on the university’s Hayward campus to get a taste of higher education.

On this day, brisk coastal winds stir the girls in their small clusters, compelling them to crowd closer together as they wait for morning announcements. This finally happens, the 13-year-olds moan, at 9:34 a.m. when Shayna Whitley (MA ’16, Economics) strides into the center of their gathering spot and the group immediately quiets.

Standing at about 5’6” and wearing a hoodie and jeans with fashionable rips at the knees, Whitley easily blends in with the middle schoolers — a fact, they say, that helps them think of her as a big sister. But there’s no mistaking her authority, or the respect she commands from the young women. As program coordinator at Girls Inc. of Alameda County, Whitley designed the camp’s curriculum, arranges the weekly field trips, oversees the instructors, and reinforces — at every opportunity — the STEM-based lessons that are at the heart of the experience.

She quickly calls out changes in the schedule (a group leader is out sick and she’ll be taking over pool duty), and true to her warning, gives out the information only once. When Whitley asks, “Are we clear?” dozens of young voices answer back with a resounding “Yes!” The group is dismissed and she heads for lifeguard duty with the first of the girls to swim for the day. Many of them, she notes, had never been in a pool before coming to Cal State East Bay.

En route, she confiscates a piece of cheesecake (it’s against Girls Inc.’s nutrition policy) and responds to exaggerations about frostbite by asking a group of “rookies” — eighth graders — at what temperature water freezes. When one says it’s so cold she’s sure she’ll get pneumonia, Whitley is again on cue, inquiring, “Really? Does that make sense? How do you contract pneumonia?” (Virus transmission is on the list of course topics this summer.)

Later, as she tells her own story — she grew up in Washington, DC (her parents both work government tech jobs), got a bachelor’s degree in biology at Hampton University, and started with Girls Inc. in southern Virginia before following an opportunity with the organization to California — an interesting reciprocity surfaces between the young women she’s shepherding toward college and what led her to the master’s in economics at Cal State East Bay.

“I noticed there was a deficit with the girls just understanding the way the world works,” Whitley says. “And with science — I love science — but when you try to talk about biology and cells, the girls can’t see cells, so they really don’t care. I wanted to think of something that was just as relevant, just as powerful, just as important as all of those things, and that would really resonate with them.

“Girls care about money,” she continues. “And literally anything and everything we do has some type of economic component to it, so I really thought about that — and I started developing lessons for the girls [on economics] in a way that made sense to them.”

However, after a good running start with talks about family finances, material goods and the cost of college, Whitley soon came up against her own limitations. “I started researching economic literacy, and I started realizing how much I liked it — and how much I needed to know. I needed to know the mechanics of it,” she explains.

Whitley began looking for master’s degree programs locally, and it wasn’t long before she was filling out an application for Cal State East Bay.

“When I turn on CNN, Bloomberg, CNBC, there’s not a lot of people of color — at least not enough,” Whitley says. “It’s a culture thing and maybe it’s a community thing … my family was well off and we still didn’t talk about money. I want to see more people of color take the reins, if you will, to understand their power. We could change the world,” she emphasizes, “if everyone understood the economic principles, foundations and repercussions of all the decisions that they make.”

While she’s still deciding what to do with her own degree (health care policy is an area of interest), Whitley isn’t wasting any time putting her knowledge to use — she’s sharing it every day with young women from throughout the East Bay, whom she calls “our future.”

“Economics is a scary word to them,” she says. “So I work a component into every lesson that they do. It’s not necessarily hidden, and it’s there in a way that makes sense to them, but they wouldn’t say, ‘Oh, this is economics.’”

“The greatest thing that [Shayna] offers is that she knows how to make everything relevant to a girl’s life,” says Odette Nemes, senior director of development for Girls Inc. of Alameda County. “Whether it’s economics, if it’s science, if it’s media literacy — she can always tie it in. She can get girls excited to learn about anything.”

“She does incorporate economics in our teachings for Girls Inc.,” agrees 13-year-old Kayla Jones. “It’s not as noticeable, but if she just came out and said, ‘We’re going to learn about economics,’ nobody was going to listen. At all. So I think the way she set it up was good, because then she brought it to our attention [afterward] and we learned that we’re doing something that college students are learning. Just simpler.”

For example, in a lesson on the function of the eye that culminates in making eyeglasses, Girls Inc. educator Corali Scimenes — also an East Bay alumna (BA ’16, International Studies) — begins by playing an infomercial on glasses that correct colorblindness. After the group watches people see, for the first time, the full spectrum of color in a sunset or their child’s artwork, Scimenes asks the girls what they think of the product. Tentatively, an eighth grader questions if it’s fair to let people try on the glasses without letting them keep them, and how much they cost. More questions are raised about the role of the sponsor, a paint company, and what it gets out of advertising glasses.  

Scimenes continues with a group quiz that lets the girls amass “money” that will be used to “buy” the materials they need to build their glasses, with any leftover funds counting as their “pay.” The price of materials also fluctuates throughout the lesson, providing a basis for the girls to understand markets.

“We are actually focusing on the business aspect of STEM as well,” Scimenes explains. “We did a prosthetics lesson with a video of a man with the most amazing, expensive prosthetic, but we have to ask the girls, at what point is this accessible to you? How likely is it that if you got into a car accident you would get his prosthetic? And is it really necessary, or can we think of other alternatives that would serve more people?”

Whitley says it’s a point about resource scarcity that resurfaces across several lessons, while Scimenes notes that setting up the experiments in this way frequently leads to some interesting outcomes. “The girls who didn’t do well [in the quiz] will go out during the break and study so they can come back and make more money. But the girls who have the most money … they don’t always have the most creative ideas — they’re relying on the fact that they can buy materials. This group (gesturing to the board) with the least money might come back and do something that dazzles me.”

Either way, it is economics, and it’s teaching the girls a mode of viewing the world that will sustain them in the future, including the possibility of coming back to Cal State East Bay.  

“A lot of girls are interested in going here now because of being here so long,” Whitley says. “It’s a positive memory in their minds of this specific campus, which is something that we’ve seen when we’ve run similar programs at other college campuses in the region.”

“To have eighth-grade girls in that space [at Cal State East Bay], starting that young, when they’re going to be the first in their families to go to college … to have them own it and feel like they belong there is really important,” Nemes says. “The other piece of it is, Cal State East Bay is a great option for our girls. It’s a great school, it’s local, [and] as far as diversity, the numbers are great, which makes the girls feel comfortable.”

For Whitley, there’s also a clear symmetry in presenting Cal State East Bay as a real possibility for “my girls,” as she calls them.

“The master’s in economics program has changed my life,” she says. “It opened up a whole perspective that I didn’t know existed, a whole world — I had a learning curve coming from a bachelor’s degree in science … and I just see the growth in me through this program. I’m just so thankful and appreciative because I don’t know how many people would have taken this chance on me.”


Girls Inc. is a national organization that empowers girls and families from low-income communities to navigate gender, economic, and racial and social barriers to realize their full potential.  Through free programs and mentorship, girls are inspired to be “strong through healthy living, smart through education, and bold through leadership and independence” — the organization’s motto. Established in 1958, Girls Inc. of Alameda County is the largest affiliate of the national nonprofit and serves 8,000 girls and families through its Simpson Center for Girls in downtown Oakland. In 2015, the organization reports that 97 percent of its high school seniors were the first in their families to go to college, and 100 percent of participants enrolled in college. For more information visit girlsinc-alameda.org.