When Emma Halley started work on her project for Howard County's History Day last year, she had no idea what would eventually come of it.
After all, said the 16-year-old Glenelg High School junior, she took a laid-back approach, simply expanding a previous project on women's suffrage movement leader Alice Paul. She wasn't expecting much to come of it. But then she qualified for the Maryland History Day competition and then the national competition in College Park in June.
Halley walked away with a $5,000 scholarship and, more importantly, the attention of the Alice Paul Institute in New Jersey. She earned a spot on the institute's Girls Advisory Council and a trip to New York City to visit the United Nations for the International Day of the Girl Oct. 11.
"It was overwhelming," Halley said of her trip to New York City. "It was inspiring. That's the best way to put it."
With the other young women on the institute's council, Halley attended a panel of speakers that included foreign diplomats and girls from around the world who have started outreach programs in their communities. It was an opportunity to learn how young women around the world are becoming advocates for their rights, and how Halley herself could become an agent of positive social change.
"It's crazy to think these girls are my age and have already done so much good," Halley said. "It inspired me to start something here of my own."
The young women who spoke at the event, and with whom Halley got to speak afterward, have created programs that run the gamut. A 14-year-old in Burkina Faso raised enough funds to buy 60 bikes for girls in her village to attend school, for example. The common thread of all these programs is the focus on education for girls and young women in parts of the world where it might otherwise be denied, or difficult to obtain.
"Education is so important," said Halley, of Woodbine. "It's something I value a lot and it's something that's not widely available to girls in developing nations."
Halley is in the process of reaching out to those young women and the organizations they have created to start a book drive. She wants to approach the Howard County Public School System to see if the textbooks schools no longer use can be sent to girls and young women across the globe, and possibly raise funds to help educational programs in developing countries.
When she asked the young women at the United Nations for advice, Halley said, their response was resounding.
"They said, 'Just do it, go for it,' ' Halley said. "And that helped me realize, I've always had good ideas, but my fear was always in the execution. Seeing these girls bring their ideas to life was so empowering. It made me realize if you put an idea out there and it doesn't work, it doesn't mean it's a bad idea. Just try something else. No one's stopping you."
Seeing her daughter grow empowered and inspired as a result of her trip to the United Nations has been "amazing" to watch, said Beth Halley.
"She wants to be a civil servant, learning about the needs of others and working toward the good of all," Beth Halley said. "She's more focused now on making her world a better place for young women, for everyone."
The biggest lesson Halley learned, she said, was that everyone can make a difference, no matter how young. It's a message she wants to spread.
"Put your mind to it, set your goals and strive to achieve them," Halley said. "Your ideas are gold. At the end of the day, you're making a difference in someone's life and if you can go to bed knowing you helped one person, you can go to bed happy."