Young Athena program empowers GCU, high school students

High school students in the Young Athena program meet for one of their summer sessions. 

When Athena Valley of the Sun members wanted to start a leadership and self-discovery program for college-age women, they turned to their Grand Canyon University partner, the Honors College, to turn those plans into action.

Since the Young Athena personal development program's debut in spring 2022, more than 100 college students have completed the 10-week curriculum, which embraces the tenets of Athena Valley of the Sun, an organization that champions women in their professions and community work and nurtures their leadership potential.

And this summer, the program is being offered to high school students, too.

Athena Valley of the Sun members mentor students and facilitate discussions and activities at Young Athena sessions.

The purpose of Young Athena is to teach girls the Eight Principles of Enlightened Leadership: live authentically, learn constantly, build relationships, foster collaboration, act courageously, advocate fiercely, give back and celebrate.

“GCU should be engaged in this because this is a lot of soft skills companies are looking for to begin with,” Honors College program coordinator Kendall Smith said. “But it is really looking deep into yourself and knowing who you are first, because if you don’t first respect yourself, it’s hard for you to know and lead others. It is pouring into your own cup first so you can pour out to other people.”

Participants meet weekly and engage in activities in which they reflect on their character, discuss life principles and build community.  

They start with an assessment of 100-word lists that include various character traits. They highlight words they think define them and eliminate the ones that don't. They are left with three to five top choices that reflect who they are.

“It is really insightful, because it helps them see where their yeses come from and where their nos come from,” Smith said. “It is bringing awareness to what they really value.”

Students participate in a Young Athena activity. The program champions women in their professions and nurtures their leadership skills.

Other activities include taking the VARK test (visual-audible-reading-kinesthetic learning), in which they discover personal learning styles, reflecting on current relationships and researching women in history that advocated for revolutionary causes.

Animation/programming honors student Keerthana Krishnakumar Juttu became interested in the program once she learned about its focus on community-building and the connections students make.  

“I wanted to get involved because I am a commuter and consider myself to be an introverted person," Krishnakumar Juttu said. "I scheduled my classes back to back, and then I would just leave. I wouldn’t really get involved. But I really wanted that community. I wanted to get to know more people.”

Keerthana Krishnakumar Juttu serves as an ambassador in the Young Athena leadership program. (Photo by Ralph Freso/GCU News)

Krishnakumar Juttu joined the program last year as a student and quickly transitioned to being on the team as an ambassador.

“I really felt empowered,” she added. “We discussed personal issues, because that was a safe space to share. I wanted more of it, and I wanted to create that safe space for other young women.”

Once Athena Valley of the Sun and the Honors College noticed the benefits of the program, they decided they shouldn’t keep it only for college-age women.  

“The Athena Valley people thought, we need to host this for kids who are a little bit younger, because a lot of college students will say, ‘I wish I had this in high school, I wish I knew all these great things,'” Smith said.

This summer, the program launched its first series for high school students, designed to inspire young women to discover their aspirations.

In between sessions, students break off into small groups and network.

During a four-week accelerated program, participants discuss the same topics and engage in the same activities as their college-age counterparts do in their 10-week program. High school students still can sign up here to participate for the remainder of the summer program.

Added Krishnakumar Juttu, it's important to tell young women, "You have time and space to look at yourself, to see what is there."

GCU staff writer Izabela Fogarasi can be reached at [email protected]

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