As the Academy’s award-winning, one-of-a-kind Women In Natural Sciences (WINS) program celebrates its 40th anniversary, we reached out to our new WINS Project Assistant, Janai Keita, to learn more about her own experiences in the program as a high school student and how they helped create such impactful and heartfelt connections that she came back to WINS as a leader.
Tell us about yourself and your own WINS experience.
My name is Janai Keita. While I am a creative person, a future social worker and a storyteller, I am also a WINS Alumnae and now the new WINS Project Assistant at the Academy.
I started WINS in 2009, the summer before my freshman year at Philadelphia High School for Girls. Upon starting WINS, I did not know that this would be a program that would essentially change my life.
As a young black girl from a single parent household in the inner city of Philadelphia, the idea of attending summer camp or programs that cost money was not a real option for me or my mother’s pockets. Being nominated for WINS felt like such an accomplishment and it was really a weight off my mother’s shoulders.
Looking back on middle school Janai, I was very afraid to step into new spaces and was always scared that I would not fit in or make friends. The very first day of our summer class I made some friendships that would carry me into my late twenties. I spent my summers and even most days after school with these young women. I grew with them and experienced life changes with them by my side.
What do you think is so special about WINS?
The WINS program afforded me opportunities that a lot of my high school peers had not gotten a chance to tap into. Ms. Betsy pushed us outdoors and helped us see things differently than what was in our neighborhood park. My eyes were opened to what it meant to really appreciate natural sciences and the world we live in while also learning how to keep a small ecological footprint.
The Academy of Natural Sciences became a place that held space for me to be my “nerdy” self and the WINS office became a safe place that felt like home. Working as an explainer was my first real job, and I loved working here so much that I then began to hold other positions such as a Birthday Party host, Safari Overnight Guide and The Mascot. I received an internship and simultaneously worked as the WINS I assistant and even won an award for the best big sister (this is something that to this day, I pride myself on). WINS taught me the importance of mentorship.
When I graduated high school, I remember being sad that my time with WINS had come to an end. I made my way through college but was surprised at how the sisterhood and bonds that I held and carried me during one of the toughest times of my life. When I was in college I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and in the same year, I also lost my father. My WINS sisters lifted me up in ways that I could never thank them enough for.
What are you most excited about for WINS III?
Learning about the WINS III expansion really excited me. Thinking about the program that poured into me so much, now elevated to a new level that I wish I had when I was finishing up high school, made me feel proud. I had to be a part of this expansion.
While being new to this position, I already notice the impacts in these young women. Holding space for them to share their fears for those who haven’t been to college but also the current worries for the rising sophomores.
Even though we are in a pilot experience, the need for this type of guidance and care for the WINS girls is so important. I am honored to be able to return home.