GLIMPSE OF THE FUTURE • Northwest Indiana Business Magazine


Mentoring outlines career options for middle-school girls.
by Shari Held

When Jeni Elkins's daughter, Olivia, showed an interest in becoming a cyber-forensic specialist, Elkins, who had worked in computer technology for years, reached out to the CEO of a cyber-forensics company to give Olivia insight into the profession. “That woman opened up my daughter's world,” Elkins says.

Elkins, who had developed a mentoring program at Valparaiso University, knew how powerful such programs could be, but seeing the transformation in her daughter inspired her to step up and create her own program.

“I thought what if we brought it down to the middle-school level, when kids are still exploring and trying to determine what track they will follow,” she says. “And what if we gave them a chance to explore industries right in their own backyard.”

She ran the idea by her friend, Cathie Dull, who also embraced it. In 2008 they founded Discoveries Unlimited Inc., a mentoring program for young girls interested in professions related to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). The organization's focus on professional development, as opposed to character development, sets it apart, as does the way the program is structured.

“Most STEM programs I see are one week or one day or one month,” Elkins says. “They spark the flame but they don't sustain it. Plus, we use an online and face-to-face combination, so an industry professional will spend one day a month with the child they are mentoring and the rest of the time they connect online. That allows busy professionals to make a difference with the schedules they have.”

Meeting the needs of students and businesses
Dull recognized the program's potential for spurring long-term economic development. In her former position at an international staffing company, she had heard “grumblings” from companies concerned they wouldn't be able to find qualified workers to replace retiring baby boomers. “I thought this would be a great answer for our companies,” she says. “It gives them the opportunity to connect with these kids at a very young age, and it will help build a potential workforce rooted in STEM.”

After much research, Elkins and Dull launched the pilot for Discoveries Unlimited in January 2010 with 17 sixth-grade girls from two Valparaiso schools. “We wanted to keep it small so we could pay attention to how things were going to work – if it was going to roll out the way we had anticipated that it would,” Dull says. The second semester of 2010 they opened the program to grades six through eight and expanded it to include other area schools and home-schooled children. This semester 27 girls from Valparaiso and the surrounding communities are enrolled.

Valparaiso-based Discoveries Unlimited has formed partnerships with STEM-related businesses as well as professional organizations and universities. Each month mentors and mentees (M&Ms) attend meetings hosted by the organization's supporters.

Recently, Golden Technologies, an information technology services company, gave the M&Ms hands-on experience in creating their own blog websites. “The partner companies show the girls the potential positions, jobs and careers that await them 10 or 15 years down the road,” Dull says. “That has been really motivating.”

Moving Forward
Elkins delights in the fact that the girls are doing things they never thought they could do. “I can see their confidence levels rising as they explore different careers,” she says.

In April, Discoveries Unlimited hosted its first fundraising event, bringing Dr. Sally Ride, the first American woman to fly in space, to Merrillville. She spoke to 3,400 kids and their families about how she became an astronaut and emphasized the importance of STEM education. Elkins and Dull hope it will be the first of many such events. Currently the organization is funded by corporate and private donations.

The ultimate goal is to take Discoveries Unlimited nationwide, but there is a matter of that universal hurdle, otherwise known as funding, that has to be dealt with. Elkins is confident the organization will continue to grow.

“We have to,” she says. “We don't have a choice. It is our journey, and we are going to make this happen.”


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