smith-jenniferby Jennifer Smith
EVP & Director of Corporate Bank Operations
Zions Bancorporation
Chair, Women’s Leadership Council

Angie Ruiz recently completed her paralegal degree. A single mom of three, she knew she had to advance her education in order to provide for her family. She is continuing to take classes and wants to go on to earn her law degree. Her daughter, Alayna, is so proud of her mom. “She pushes me to study harder and get better grades. I have no excuse. She is up until 2 or 3 in the morning, the only time she has to study for her classes. She works and takes care of us and she gets straight A’s. I have to do my best, too.”

Post-secondary education enrollment figures for Utah women have steadily declined since the early 1990’s, a trend that has resulted in the gap between males and females attaining four-year college degrees rising to six percent. No other state is even close to a gap this size. This reality has severe consequences on our state’s economy and families. According to new research, due to lower education levels, women in Utah currently earn only 70 cents for every dollar men earn— the fourth highest disparity rate in the nation.

United Way of Salt Lake’s 190 member Women’s Leadership Council (WLC) has collectively invested over half a million dollars to support its initiative to empower girls and teens to complete post-secondary education and training. WLC members developed a pilot program focused on aligning volunteer and mentoring efforts around at-risk students who display specific needs regarding academic achievement, as well as transitioning students successfully from junior high, to high school, and to college. Some of the specific activities include: one-on-one mentoring and tutoring, career and college tours, classroom presentations and three-day workshops based on the best-selling book, StrengthsFinder 2.0, designed to help young women understand their potential.

Alayna recently participated in a college and career training with members of the Women’s Leadership Council. “I know for a fact I’m going to college. It’s fun to learn that there are so many options. I know I like poetry and English, but now, I think engineering would be interesting.”

The wide-range of benefits a woman receives from a college education is passed along to succeeding generations. Alayna’s mother is a strong role model to help ensure her college success. Thousands of others of Utah female students are not that lucky. Mentors are powerful influencers who can help guide students to graduate from high school and attain some level of post-secondary education. For an at-risk student, the impact of a mentor can be life-changing not only for the student, but also for her future family.

Research has shown that women with post-secondary degrees are more likely to vote and be engaged members of the community. Women who are more educated are more likely to give birth to healthy babies and by elementary school, their children are more prepared academically and are more involved in extracurricular activities. More educated women who want or need to work part-time or full-time can typically find employment that gives them higher salaries along with increased autonomy and flexibility and more opportunities for family-friendly work schedules.

United Way of Salt Lake Women’s Leadership Council believes in order to achieve the vision that 66 percent of Utahns will have degrees by 2020, we all need to encourage our young women to make better educational choices. It is all our responsibility—business leaders, church leaders, teachers, parents, community leaders and others. We must be positive role models and encourage our young women to obtain post-secondary degrees for this and future generations of Utah women.

Jennifer Smith is chair of United Way of Salt Lake Women’s Leadership Council and is also the EVP and Director of Bank Operations at Zions Bancorporation.