She’s the First tea brings students, community together to support education for girls

By Marine Elia

At 22 years old, Shimul Melwani left her hometown of Mumbai, India, fleeing an arranged marriage. She wanted to forge her own path and headed to America to earn her master’s degree in industrial and labor relations at Cornell University.

After obtaining her Ph.D. in management and organizational behavior at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, Melwani is now an associate professor of organizational behavior at the Kenan-Flagler Business School at UNC-Chapel Hill.

On Sunday, March 3, she spoke as a panelist alongside two other women for the annual She’s the First tea to celebrate International Women’s Day under the elegant chandeliers of the Carolina Inn. She’s the First is a student organization at UNC-CH that seeks to combat gender inequality by fundraising for girls’ education in the developing world.

“My parents didn’t speak with me for my entire first year in grad school,” Melwani told the audience, “But seeing all that I’ve accomplished, they’re very proud now.”

Sipping tea, sharing stories of empowerment

A group of 30 undergraduate students and community members listened attentively to the experiences and professional advice of the panelists, sipping Earl Grey and noshing on cranberry scones as they nodded in solidarity with the sentiments they shared with the panelists.

Viji Sathy was next to address the group. She was born in Chennai, India, but grew up in Hope Mills, North Carolina after moving there as an infant. Like Melwani, she also pursued higher education to evade an arranged marriage. Sathy is a triple Tar Heel — having earned all three of her degrees from UNC-CH. She teaches quantitative psychology in the Department of Neuroscience and Psychology and works alongside some of her former professors as colleagues.

“School was presumed for me at the undergraduate level, but it’s when I pursued a higher degree that my parents wanted me to start thinking about getting married,” Sathy said. “It was this cultural clash of myself being raised in America.”

Born into a family of female educators — her mother was a middle school math teacher and her grandmother a math professor — LuAnne Pendergraft taught history and museum studies courses at Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina. She then used her journalism and history degrees to establish a career in public relations and nonprofits. For seven years she served as the executive director of Northeast North Carolina’s Center for Hands-on Science, an interactive children’s education initiative.

“I wanted to have a space where young girls can use pipettes and microscopes. You should see how their eyes light up,” Pendergraft said. “We want to build that confidence in young girls by showing them what they are capable of by presenting them with women who are doing great work, whether it be in science or in other fields.”

Building self-confidence has not proven to be an easy task, even among women with doctoral degrees undertaking large projects. When Sathy and a female colleague were offered a book deal, she admitted they were timid during the negotiation process.

“We weren’t sure how we would be perceived if we wanted to negotiate, we didn’t know what to do,” Sathy said. “Were we supposed to stay with the number they offered us? Were we supposed to counter? We were hesitant, but reached out to others in the business and realized, ‘okay, yeah it’s expected of us to negotiate.’”

She’s the First club member Jiselle Vellaringattu reflected on the advice the panel gave to young women on how to exert confidence and voice their thoughts in classrooms and offices.

“I don’t want to think about my gender identity before my qualifications as that will allow me to excel as I apply for internships in the male-dominated field of STEM,” Vellaringattu said.

Facing the pressures of being a young woman in college and specifically in the STEM field as a computer science major, Vellaringattu realized she often restrains herself from asking questions. In order to give the impression that she is more knowledgeable about the subject than she actually is, Vellaringattu said she tends to avoid asking male teaching assistants questions, and instead only seeks the help of her female TAs.

Supporting the next generation of women leaders

Beyond the sea of brightly colored Lily Pulitzer dresses, porcelain teacups, and the statement jewelry for auction, the tea recognized those who do not share in the same privilege of the attendees and panelists.

On the tables next to the clotted cream and the assortment of strawberry and apricot jams were flyers of the young girls sponsored by the UNC-CH chapter of She’s the First. Ester, Keerthara and Sweetie’s smiling faces showed guests the students whom their contributions are benefitting.

Ester is from Guatemala where she attends eighth grade at the MAIA Impact School. On weekends, she rises at 5 in the morning to help her mother cook and sell Guatemalan-style tamales called chucitos in front of the Catholic Church of Sololá.

At the Shanti Bhavan Children’s Project in Bangalore, India, Keerthara loves to color pictures and learn English in her first grade class. Sweetie is also in first grade at the same school and cites coming to school for the first time as one of her favorite memories.

Allie Savino, president of She’s the First at UNC-CH, reflects on the four annual teas she has helped come to fruition. In the event’s first year, only 20 tickets were sold.

“We organize it every year because it’s a great way to celebrate women while at the same time raising money for a cause we’re all passionate about,” Savino said.

The tea raised $2,000 for tuition and school supplies for the sponsored students, all while empowering young women preparing to emerge in the professional world.

Perhaps in several decades, Ester, Keerthara, and Sweetie will be the panelists inspiring the next generation of women at the She’s the First annual tea.

Edited by Mitra Norowzi