Owensboro native and longtime Girls Inc. member Whitney Hanley became the first person in her family to earn her doctoral degree last week. Hanley, whose focus was in exceptional education, said the most pivotal point of her career path stemmed from her time at Girls Inc., where she worked alongside a young woman with Down syndrome.
With plans to teach at the University of Northern Iowa, Hanley said she will be giving back to teachers who plan to teach students with disabilities.
“My interest in special education came from my experience at Girls Inc.,” she said.
Hanley, a member of Girls Inc. from ages 6-18 and a staff member for four of those years, said the young girl’s personality and strength played a role in her positive attitude. That positive attitude helped inspire Hanley to delve deeper into exceptional education.
Girls Inc. chief executive officer Tish Correa Osborne said Hanley’s journey toward getting her doctorate degree was emblematic of everything her agency stands for.
“At Girls Inc., we happen to believe that every girl is inherently strong, smart and bold. Our job is to help facilitate a girl’s understanding of her value and worth through the essential services we provide, and what we call the ‘Girls Inc. experience,’” Osborne said. “Being able to watch and listen to Whitney through the years has truly made us all better people and a better organization because of her example.”
Osborne described Hanley as a “tiny, young woman with a gigantic heart for others,” and despite being soft-spoken, her passion for girls, women, justice and equality rings loud and clear.
During her time at Girls Inc., Hanley served on the Girls Inc. National Girls Rights Advisory Board and advocated for girls’ and women’s rights across the country. She was one of 12 girls across the country selected for the honor.
Hanley was also named a Girl of the Year on multiple occasions and was also a Girls Inc. National Scholar.
“She is a traveling Girls Inc. Ambassador for our local organization and National Girls Inc.,” Osborne said. “She stays entrenched in activities and opportunities to speak on girls’ policy issues, and helps us fundraise at special events. She has never turned down an invitation to assist Girls Inc. in any way.”
For Hanley, the biggest takeaway from all of her experiences has been realizing how strong the power of connection is for young women and girls. Her dissertation was focused on disproportionate experiences for black girls, and Hanley said doing the research for that dissertation led to a lot of self-discovery for herself along the way.
“Helping girls be successful is so important — that insistence on success,” she said. “You really do some self-discovery along the way. You have to articulate because nobody knows your research better than you do. It’s a piece of you and becomes the center of your life.”