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Jaya Minhas ’17; Photo by Dan Z. Johnson

As a ninth grader attending Cobham Hall, an independent day and boarding school in Cobham, Kent, England—not far from her birthplace of Dartford, Kent—Jaya Minhas ’17 felt alone. Reality shows like “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” told her she needed to look and dress a certain way. Classmates at the all-girls school ignored her and purposely excluded her from their social activities. Hurt, insecure and sad, Jaya withdrew and threw herself into her studies.

A year later, Jaya moved back to the States – where she had attended elementary school – to finish out her high school years at Parsippany Hills High in Morris Plains, N.J. While she flourished academically, the scars left behind from being bullied in England fostered insecurities and self-doubt.

Watching her daughter be bullied in school and seeing the toll it took on her self-esteem was heart-wrenching, says Bijay Minhas, a licensed social worker and life coach. “Low self-esteem affects life choices,” says Bijay.

The choice of what to do after high school graduation troubled Jaya the most. Finally, after much contemplation, “She decided to concentrate on her inner self,” says her mother.

Jaya opted for a gap year – a year off from school to explore what she wanted to do – before deciding on college.

“I needed to figure out who I was, where I wanted to go, do I even want to go to college, and what to study,” says Jaya, who began her freshman year at Albright this fall as a sociology, French and Spanish major in the honors program.

The gap year made all the difference. While Jaya was discovering her own path and rebuilding her confidence, she was also making a difference in the lives of girls just like her.

With a life coach for a mom, Jaya didn’t have to venture far to begin her self-exploration. She signed on to assist with a seven-session workshop designed to help pre-teen and teen girls better understand themselves and others. Bijay knew the workshop participants would benefit from her daughter’s experiences. “Jaya could engage the girls as a peer mentor,” Bijay says. “The girls looked up to her as a role model, and I could see the impact it had on Jaya when the girls identified with her.”

Worries, peer pressure, relationships, violence, influences of media and social media, body image, bullying and self-esteem were all topics open for discussion during the workshop, which was run out of Bijay’s home office in New Jersey. “Girls are so vulnerable at that age,” Jaya says. “I didn’t want other girls to go through feeling isolated like I did.”

Jaya led the girls in group activities. In one activity, the girls were asked to write down words to describe their bodies. “The teens were so critical. Some of them felt hatred toward themselves,” Jaya says. Many girls in the group had already started to judge themselves harshly. “Jaya added a lot of value to these groups,” Bijay says. “She showed them how she developed a thick skin.”


Pictured above: Jaya Minhas ’17 poses with children of the Divine Onkar Mission’s orphanage in Jharkhand, India, where she volunteered.

Going through the process and talking about issues that had affected her as teenager helped Jaya to heal. “It helped me get closure,” she says. “My insecurities are ongoing, but it helped me put things into perspective.”

When the workshops were over, Jaya knew she needed to take her experiences and her renewed confidence someplace where she could once again make a difference. She chose Divine Onkar Mission. Founded by her grandfather Tersam Lal in 1991, Divine Onkar Mission serves the needy in the most remote parts of India, specifically Jharkhand and Orissa, two of the poorest states.

Once in India, Jaya fell into a mentor role again. She taught English classes, spent time with children living in an orphanage, comforted those in a leprosy camp and cared for patients recuperating at the Onkar Eye Hospital, which provides free cataract eye surgeries to those in need. “You never think that someone has it worse than you do,” Jaya says of the experience. “The kids in the orphanage came from parents who couldn’t afford schooling or they had no parents at all, no stable upbringing. They dealt with poverty at such a young age. This gave them a chance to have an education, a chance to be kids and have meals three times a day.”

Jaya worked with girls in India just as she had in her mother’s living room, and they too struggled to sort out issues related to body image and self-esteem.”There was a lot of focus on physical traits,” Jaya says, “but their comments were not coming from a place of deficit from themselves.” They came instead, Jaya explains, from the images portrayed in the media. “I was shocked that they had such a level of comparison and ideal of what beauty was. It showed me the impact the media has really had.”

When Jaya returned to the States, she reflected on what she had seen. “The people had such a genuine appreciation for life,” she says. “We take a lot for granted.”

Determined not to do the same, Jaya embraced her newfound passion for teaching and working with children, and volunteered with Green Chimneys, a nonprofit organization in Brewster, N.Y., that provides animal-assisted therapy and educational activities for children with special needs.

She also interned with El Primir Paso, Ltd., in Dover, N.J., an organization whose mission is to provide high-quality preschool programs for dual-language learners, adult English-language education, and support for affordable, culturally responsive childcare.

“I got close to so many kids,” says Jaya. “It was hard for me to leave. One of the moms (at El Primir Paso) said that I had a big impact on her daughter’s life. That was amazing to hear.” But even in these young children between the ages of 3 to 5, self-esteem issues were present. “You think they’re not aware of those issues at that age,” she says, “but they are so aware.”

According to Brenda Ingram-Wallace, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology and director of the counseling center at Albright, “girls can be very treacherous toward each other.” Looks, body image, boys and competition for attention have always been issues for girls. Perceptions often come from role models, whether they are in the home or in the media. With television shows such as “Toddlers and Tiaras,” girls are dealing with these issues at an earlier age, says Ingram-Wallace. “These shows perpetuate the idea that you’re not acceptable in and of yourself,” she says. “If you don’t have the acceptable beauty markers, you have to create them.”

Jaya hopes to research media influences on girls’ self-esteem while at Albright and plans to continue to talk about the issues facing teen girls. “I want to spread the message that it’s okay not to love everything about ourselves. But overall, we have to concentrate more on what we love about ourselves.”

It was being bullied that helped Jaya learn to accept herself. “Bullying caused me to feel stronger in my own values and strengths and happier in the long run. I was able to learn the value of friendship, and of being powerful in your own skin, rather than always looking for acceptance.”

And through her gap year experience she learned how to help others feel accepted, too. “When I’m secure in myself,” she says, “that’s when I can take a stand for others.”

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