Alumni Horizon Award recipient helps young Guatemalan women imagine a better future

Danielle Skogen says she just wanted to see a bit of the world and work on her Spanish when she decided to take a short break from her new career as an elementary school teacher in Calgary to travel to Guatemala. “I thought I’d follow that passion for six months, get it out of my system, and come back to Alberta ready to settle down and move forward as a teacher,” said Skogen, who completed her bachelor of education degree at Campus St-Jean in 2011.

“I volunteered in Guatemala planning for six months to be the extent of my trip, and I realized that my interest in international development was definitely much more than something I wanted to do on the side. I felt like I was falling into my life’s purpose.”

Six months turned into seven years in Guatemala. Skogen started out developing English-language curriculum, then worked in sponsorship and fundraising for a non-profit educational organization. After many conversations with local mothers, teachers and social workers, it was clear to Skogen there was a critical need for a program that would better support girls in overcoming the unique barriers they face growing up in a patriarchal society afflicted by high rates of poverty, school attrition, teenage pregnancy and domestic violence.

“It started out with me just wanting to bring a program to the girls in the school that I was working with, but that’s when I discovered there wasn’t anything out there with the holistic and in-depth approach that was needed to create meaningful change. There were sexual and reproductive health programs, or there were human rights programs, but there wasn’t anything looking at the big picture of what’s holding girls back.”

An empowering partnership

Skogen says she started looking for nonprofit organizations that were already providing the kind of empowerment programs for girls that she hoped to implement in Guatemala. In 2014, she reached out to Anea Bogue, founder of the Los Angeles-based REALgirl Foundation, which was delivering just the sort of programming Skogen had imagined to girls in North America, Europe and Asia. Skogen and Bogue then partnered to create a customized version of the REALgirl program for Guatemala, now known as SERniña.

“SERniña, the Latin American branch of the REALgirl Foundation, launched in 2015 and ever since we’ve been customizing, deepening and enhancing the curriculum to make sure it’s as culturally relevant and impactful as possible.”

Working in the Sacatepéquez and Chimaltenango regions of Guatemala, SERniña has provided programming to thousands of youth, with some 375 youth attending their weekly school-based workshops prior to COVID-19. Many more girls and women participate in one-off workshops, teacher training and other programming. In 2017, SERniña launched SERniño, a gender-equity and positive masculinity program for boys, and SERelCambio, a leadership and community activism program.

Last year, REALgirl/SERniña formed an alliance with Medicine Hat-based Canadian Humanitarian Organization for International Relief. Skogen is currently working on adapting REALgirl’s curriculum to support their education centres in Ethiopia and Malawi, though pandemic has delayed plans to travel to conduct a needs assessment.

Skogen says she’s humbled to have been chosen for the 2020 University of Alberta Alumni Horizon Award, which recognizes the outstanding professional achievements and/or contributions of recent graduates, and credits a 2010 international practicum in Kenya she undertook through Campus St-Jean with igniting her passion for international development

“I know I wouldn’t be who I am without the University of Alberta,” Skogen said. “The education program gave me the confidence to step up as a leader and beyond. If I hadn’t gone to Kenya with Projet Afrique, I don’t think SERniña would have ever started. I’ve been blown away by some of the trailblazers who have come out of the U of A, so it’s a huge honour to be recognized. It makes me really proud.”

Feature image provided by Danielle Skogen