UCF organization seeks to empower young women
Shanequa Bernard is that girl.
She became that girl at a leadership conference in 2010 at Walt Disney World during a workshop led by Alexis Jones, co-founder of the nationally recognized organization "I Am That Girl." The organization encourages girls to feel strong, secure and beautiful in their own bodies.
"Who are you going to allow to tell you no?" Jones asked to a packed room. In those 10 minutes, Bernard said her life was changed.
"I was majoring in legal studies and everyone was telling me that you are going to be a lawyer and that's it," Bernard said. "She was talking [about] believing in yourself [and] putting out there what you want to happen through your words."
Bernard, who double-majored in legal studies and theatre, started a mentoring relationship with Jones that led to UCF starting one of the first local chapters of IATG in 2011. The organization seeks to instill authentic beauty and confidence in young women and provides a safe place for them to be lifted up and have honest conversations.
"The message that we have for the organization is collaboration, not competition, and making your dreams possible by having the support system possible," Bernard said.
During the beginning stages of the chapter, Bernard faced struggles that tested the foundation of IATG.
"I come from a poverty-stricken background and my family couldn't afford to help me pay for rent. They had to take care of themselves," Bernard said. "I had amazing friends who let me sleep on their couches while I tried to finish school."
The family that she created with IATG became a support system for her as she was on the verge of homelessness. She connected and encouraged students through weekly meetings and leadership workshops to become involved with the movement. The message of self-esteem and empowerment resonated with UCF graduate Taylor Reyes.
"It wasn't until I got to college that I started the journey to loving who I am and what I see in the reflection of the mirror," Reyes said in an email. After Reyes helped IATG win third place for UCF's Homecoming Small Organization Award in 2012, Bernard passed the baton of presidency to her.
"It has not been easy gaining my self-confidence and accepting the skin that I am in," Reyes said.
The confidence she gained from IATG allowed her to become a contestant for the Mr. and Miss UCF Scholarship Pageant, winning Non-Finalist Best Interview.
"IATG definitely helped in my journey, as well as finding great friends to lean on, family support and getting involved on campus and in the community," she said.
During her tenure, Reyes started an annual event called the Princess Gala to celebrate the women of IATG.
"I wanted an event that the everyday 'normal' college woman can get dolled up for and feel welcomed to shine [at]," she said.
These women had one thing in common: their desire to be strong women full of potential, and [to have] the ability to speak their minds.
Senior Krista Garcia attended meetings for IATG, but during the first year she never said a word.
"All lot of girls dealt with self-harm and I was one of them," Garcia said. "Knowing that there are others who are going through the same thing is great. I don't have to be alone anymore."
She became more involved with the organization and eventually found her voice as the current president. Every week, Garcia and IATG members mentor Timber Creek High School girls who are at risk of not graduating or dropping out.
"We go in once a week and we chat with them and guide them," she said. "It's about having girls who have already been there and done that to come back and guide them. "
So, who is that girl?
"She is the best version of all of us," Garcia said.
That girl is forever a work in progress, but comfortable in her own skin, the website states. That girl leaves this world better than she found it.
I Am That Girl meets in the Psychology building, room 106 every other Thursday at 7 p.m. For more information, visit the Facebook page "I Am That Girl: Local UCF."