Bright students, inspiring speakers connect at Girls’ Summit

Laninya Cason

Judge Laninya Cason, one of the youngest judges in Illinois when she was first appointed to the Twentieth Judicial Circuit in 2003, addresses an audience of middle school girls at UMSL Nov. 21. (Photos by August Jennewein)

“How does it feel to be a judge?”

Laninya Cason paused before responding to the question, one of many put to her by a crowd of girls gathered at the University of Missouri–St. Louis.

“Natural,” answered Cason, an associate judge with the Twentieth Judicial Circuit Court in Illinois. “Judges think, analyze – and that’s what I like to do: think and analyze.”

Thinking was a theme of her keynote talk, “Let’s Imagine Your Future,” at the Girls’ Summit that brought nearly 100 St. Louis-area middle school girls to campus Nov. 21. Organized by UMSL students taking part in a leadership initiative of the Sue Shear Institute for Women in Public Life, the event focused the girls’ attention around long-term goals and healthy choices.

“You have got to empower yourself. Think about what you want to do,” said Cason, a member of the National Association of Women Judges which co-founded the summit. “I thought I wanted to be a doctor. [In college] I figured out I couldn’t do it. I scrapped that plan and had to think about something else.”

Cason described poverty and lack of education as “two bandits” that can result in “a world of trouble” and create enormous challenges. She also said it’s primarily up to young people “to figure this thing out.”

“Everybody has a story,” Cason said. “No matter what your story is, embrace things like this. Embrace this summit… Get your education, get those grants, get those loans, get it. [Your degree] is something that no one can take away from you.”

Girls' Summit

Nearly 100 middle school students gathered at the Millennium Student Center last week for the second annual Girls’ Summit organized by UMSL’s Sue Shear Institute for Women in Public Life. (Click to enlarge photo.)

The Girls’ Summit included students from diverse backgrounds and a range of public and private schools in the St. Louis region. Following Cason’s spirited address, they peppered her with questions, wondering at what point she knew she wanted to go in to law, what her caseload is like and what advice she would give to encourage family members to go to college.

“The speakers were all women that these girls could relate to and see a part of themselves in,” said UMSL graduate student Justine Patterson, one of this year’s LEAD program participants. “I was surprised by the amount of questions they asked our speakers [and] enjoyed hearing the girls talk about their goals.”

In addition to Cason’s talk, the summit included a chance to interact with professionals in a variety of fields for 15 minutes each at different tables throughout the room, a focus on health and mindfulness, and a discussion led by Rhonda Gray, executive director of Almost Home.

Almost Home provides housing and support for teenage mothers and their children. At one point in her presentation, Gray asked the middle school students to raise their hands if they know someone who has had a baby at the age of 12 or 13. Dozens of hands flew up.

“Get really focused and serious about the things that should be important to you right now,” Gray said. “The best way to prevent teen pregnancy is to have a bright future.”

The UMSL Experience


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