One Week Ago. Six Months Ago. Fourteen Years Ago.

One week ago, ten amazing American girls from Texas, ages 14 to 17, departed Orvieto, the little hilltop town in central Italy where they spent 15 days immersed in international culture, exploration and education.

Six months ago, none of them had a passport and probably didn’t know how to say “ciao”. But with a nod from their courageous parents and an application on, these teenage girls made a commitment to Italy and said yes to an experience of a lifetime. They saved their high school coins, and a couple of them even got a part-time job after school. They wrote letters to friends and family for support. And they held several t-shirt, bake sale, babysitting and online fundraisers. They applied for their passports. They attended info-sessions each month to get prepared. They worked hard to get here. Sure, they were excited about traveling to another continent, but did they really know what was in store? Did I?

Fourteen years ago, I was that girl. As a freshman in college, 17, I eagerly applied to study abroad in Italy. I didn’t have a passport and I didn’t know the Italian language. But curiosity guided me to “just try” a semester abroad in Italy, with Northlake College (Irving, Texas). I returned home to the USA after three months abroad, confused and sure something was different about my future as a result of traveling overseas. Ten years later, I relocated to Italy and started a family. There are highlights from my exchange abroad, over a decade ago, that stood out as the years went on. But experiencing it all over again with these fresh, energetic and jet setting girls awakened memories in me, of what it was like to be in Italy, to travel across oceans, to get my first stamp in my passport, to see-breathe-taste and feel what it’s like to GO outside my comfort zone for the first time as a girl.

The GIRLGO Class of 2018 Italy are no ordinary girls! They are congressional award-winning artists, pharmacy and STEM camp participants, girl scout and little side-business owners. They demonstrated excellence in their academic and extracurricular lives, and that’s why they were chosen. GIRLGO worked with The GEMS Camp (Saki Milton), a Dallas-based summer camp for girls interested in engineering, mathematics and science, along with its in-house business team, to offer a global Entrepreneur and STEM education experience abroad. All of that, coupled with language, culture and leisure made for a non-stop two-week itinerary!

Dallas descending upon Orvieto, Italy

Upon arrival, they explored the pre-historic village of Orvieto, where they also lived as a group, in a local bed and breakfast. They toured the medieval Duomo, underground caves and had their first taste of authentic Italian pasta. On day 3, the mixture of jet lag and the chaos in Rome was somewhat like water and oil — it didn’t mix. Nevertheless, they climbed the steep ancient stairs of the Colosseum, sat in front of the Trevi Fountain and beheld the Pantheon. Their first week included a stroll across Florence, seeing the famous Duomo and the statue of David. In Pisa, GEMS Camp leader Saki Milton led the STEM course girls to conduct a project on the leaning tower of Pisa, using the Law of Sines. Next, they trekked up the “dying city” of Civitá di Bagnoregio and walked around the quaint little town. Later, amongst themselves, they decided to take a trip to a Roman beach for a day of leisure.

The girls were exposed to local culture with an Italian language lesson, followed by a vineyard tour in the countryside of Umbria, discovering how wine is made along with a (parent-consented) wine tasting. They also participated in a private cooking class, making homemade gnocchi pasta and prune tortas.

I Wonder What It’s Like?

I have this idea that a girl just wants to know “what’s it like”? I believe that successful, empowered, professional and cultured women who have seen amazing things, should show girls amazing things. We can show them glimpses of possibilities and offer experiences that gives girls a day in the life. For example, a woman pilot could take girls flying; an executive chef can let ’em feel the heat in a real kitchen. When girls can experience these things early, she can decide her own ambitions in life. This was my goal with travel: to demonstrate that a woman can not only live abroad in any country she chooses, but her career can take her to the four corners of the earth. I remember being a young woman happily cruising on tourist boats with one or two-hundred other passengers, bypassing private boats thinking, “what’s it like to have one of those?” As I became established in my business and career, I was able to cruise on a private boat, and a private plane — even becoming a student-pilot at the age of 25! How cool would it be to show a girl something like that? Even if she doesn’t choose to do it in her own life and career, at least she knows. At least she’s done it; and that is what makes a well rounded, wordly and cultured young woman. With that idea, I took the girls down to southern Italy, where we spent one glorious day on the Mediterranean Sea. I chartered two private boats and we braved the waves of the Amalfi Coast, listening to music and breezing through the wind. They all jumped into the big blue, open waters and swam with the Mediterranean currents. We snacked on strawberries and pastries, champagne and gelato. Schedule? No schedule! The mini-yachts were ours, and we charted our own course for the day, stopping at hidden caves, explored Positano for a couple hours, ate lunch in a small fisherman’s village, Nerano, and took our time getting back to the pier in Vico Equense.

As perfect as the day was, my highlight of our southern excursion was when, after a little encouragement, four of my little adventurers struck up a conversation with a group of girls from Barcelona by our hotel’s poolside, who were around their same age. They were concerned about the language barrier, but soon found themselves pulling up a chair and settling into how much they all had in common. They exchange contacts and who knows how their international friendships will evolve?

This is what GIRLGO is about. 

I told them during a vision casting session, that the individuals who review their college or employment applications won’t look at their exchange abroad as a summer trip from one country to another. And it’s not necessarily about studying entrepreneurship and STEM in Italy, either — they can do that in Dallas. College admissions, hiring managers and everyone else will look at their experience abroad as a testament to the fact that they dwelled in a foreign country, with customs and language very different than their own, met people from diverse backgrounds, got along and survived – sure, but thrived. This is what GIRLGO is about.

Possibilities of Studying Abroad

Before the trip, four of ten girls were interested in studying abroad. After their university visits and exchange experience abroad, all ten girls were seriously interested in studying abroad at least one semester during their college career. 

After our southern excursion and some down time, we picked right back up, for a special day trip back to Rome. This time, we visited two universities: John Cabot University and St. John’s University in the heart of Rome. I wanted them to get a taste of university life in another country. The girls got to spend a half day on campus at John Cabot, sitting in entrepreneurship and science lectures, touring the campus, dorms and networking with the students over lunch in the school’s cafe. At St. John’s they toured the campus and learned about the opportunities available on their American and Roman campuses. We enjoyed some artisan tiramisu in the famous quarters of Spagna, the Spanish Steps. Then, a special connection with Joanne (our TravelAngel), the wife of a Pontifical Swiss Guard of the Holy See, in Vatican City, got us exclusive access into the Vatican and St. Peter’s Basilica. The girls were beside themselves excited!

The girls of the entrepreneurship course took a private tour of a renowned, award-winning olive oil estate, Domenica Fiore, guided by the CEO himself. They learned about the craft of knowing your craft, inside and out and the secrets to success in business. They tasted fresh, solid-green olive oil and saw the entire process from good soil, to good trees, to smart branding, bottling and exclusive sales. Afterwards, they took their lessons from private sessions with me, their lectures from John Cabot University and created their elevator pitch!

Finally, our last two days were spent “at home” take a breather from two weeks of exhilarating, tiring, eye-opening amazing culture. We felt the time winding down and made sure to just chill. We went out for a little gelato. The girls gathered up some snacks and watched Netflix together. It was a feeling of settling in and getting used to the lifestyle, time difference and routines, although we all knew it was almost coming to an end.

Before the trip, I had an idea for the girls to bring something white. I wanted them to serenade the streets of Orvieto in all their jovial glory and accomplishments, wearing something eye-catching, something sentimental, something unifying that spoke to our sisterhood. Our evening of White (I call it) Stasera bellezze in bella bianca, was like a commemoration of all the hopes they may have imagined, six-months ago. It was a glimpse of what is to come for them, six months from now, six years from now, sixty years from now. The future! It’s cliche, but look at them — they truly are our beautiful, bright future! They’re already doing amazing things in their schools and in their community. They’re destined for greatness. Looking at them laugh and joke, hold hands and hug each other after this 15-day trip, felt poetic. I’d glance at one of them fixing the strap on their dress, or another putting on her heels and I remember thinking, these are girls. They are close to becoming, but have not yet become women. I remember thinking how fragile they are in this time of their lives as girls; how we: parents, teachers, mentors, peers, society, must take stock of the seriousness of her flower. How too much exposure can be damaging, but not enough, can cause her to wither away. How parents hold high positions to rear decent, moral and good contributing citizens of the world; but how we, their village and community, hold equally high responsibilities to water, nurture and provide safe environments for them to grow. With them, on this day, I remembered what it was like to be a girl. There’s nothing else like it in the world! And if she, in her feminine youth, can maintain her right to be girly and girlish during the appropriate time, then walking into womanhood will, too, be powerfully on time. The idea of a girl becoming a young woman, and a woman who can navigate this world, her life, education, career and family in her own perfect timing.

You know what I see when I look at you? I see the future! -Saki Milton, The GEMS Camp

Our final night in Italy was spent enjoying a classical concert at the Teatro Mancinelli in Orvieto complete with strings, horns and vocal performances. It was a dressy occasion and the perfect ending to our wonderful time together.

Returning to Home

While I have personally embraced Italy as my home, I knew the girls were homesick for their home and ready to hug their loved ones, and eat some “normal” food. While they missed their normal, I suspect their normal is going to change, if not already, at some point in their bright-bright future. To recreate the same experiences I had so many years ago, for a group of future engineers and entrepreneurs for two weeks was thrilling, humbling and purpose-filled to say the least. I certainly didn’t expect the direction my life took, after my first travel experience. And I’ve left my mind completely open to the direction these girls’ lives will take as they grow into who they will be. Who knows what they’ll be doing in ten years, as a result of this trip? What I do know, is that their value as students, employees, managers and business owners have increased as a result of this trip — they know it too. They know something about the world. They own a passport. They can speak a little Italian. They can catch the metro in urban-busy-chaotic Rome. They can read military time. They can. I also know that people’s eyebrows will raise when they mention their summer abroad, swimming in the Mediterranean, cooking in Umbria and studying STEM in Tuscany. I know that a big part of GIRLGO — sisterhood — was formed between these girls for a lifetime.

To show a girl, early, how to make her mark on the world… I’m happy to make this my mark, and part of my life’s work.

~Victoria Lynn Childress