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Sisterhood funds education for next generation

Melissa Irwin, Sandy Carrington and Mackayla Irwin at the Red Wing High School Scholarship Award Banquet where Carrington presented Irwin with the P.E.O. STAR Scholarship award. Submitted photo1 / 2
PEO STAR Scholarship recipient Mackenzie Irwin. Sarah Hansen / RiverTown Multimedia2 / 2

Girl power. Living your best life. #MeToo.

"Women supporting women" may sound like a moral imperative straight out of the modern feminist handbook, but a group of dedicated women have been doing just that in secrecy all across America for nearly 150 years.

"It used to be people didn't talk about it — it was sort of like secret, you know," said P.E.O. sister Sandy Carrington. "We don't want it like that. We want people to be aware."

P.E.O. was founded by seven female friends while attending Iowa Wesleyan in 1869, but it wasn't until 2005 that the group's leadership authorized an official campaign called "It's OK to Talk About P.E.O." This effort involved a rebranding of the organization and provided specific language and parameters for members (called sisters) to begin speaking publicly about their involvement.

Most sisters today will say that the acronym stands for Philanthropic Education Organization, which backs up the group's purpose of supporting women in higher education, but the real origins of P.E.O. and its mission are kept secret by the sisters as an homage to the group's founders.

As of 2017, P.E.O. claimed to have 240,000 active members in almost 6,000 chapters across the United States and Canada. In Red Wing alone, there are over 100 members operating in two chapters: P and ET.

The group's main purpose is to raise funds that support women's education through loans, scholarships and grants. The money can be used for online courses and continuing education or bachelor's, master's and doctorate degrees. P.E.O. also owns and operates an all-female college in Missouri called Cottey College.

"In Minnesota we have a home fund. We just did someone's roof," Carrington said. "There is a lot of money available."

Our local chapters of P.E.O. have promoted their financial services at the high school, local churches and Minnesota State College Southeast. They're hoping that women who need help advancing their careers will reach out and allow the sisterhood to get them to the next level.

Recent Red Wing High School graduate Mackenzie Irwin learned about the scholarships through Carrington, her grandmother. Her mother Melissa Irwin is also a P.E.O. sister.

After having her application approved and advanced by another unrelated sister, Irwin received a one-time $2,500 STAR Scholarship to attend the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. She is currently a first-year student preparing to teach elementary special education.

"(P.E.O.) definitely helped, not only in the money aspect, but just in who they are," Irwin said. "Having them continue with letters — especially in those first weeks when you're kind of homesick and stuff — to have them here saying 'we're still here, this is what we did today, just know that we talked about you again' and so that's really cool to have their support."

Though P.E.O. is working to outgrow its reputation as a secretive organization, finding a local chapter or community member to help you begin the application process can be challenging. Interested applicants are encouraged to visit the P.E.O. website and contact staff directly to ask for a referral.

The next step, after making the connection, is sitting down with a sister who will talk to the applicant about their aspirations and experience to help them find the right program. The sister will also determine whether or not to advance their application through the chapter. Once an application is approved by the chapter, it moves on to the national organization for consideration and much of the applicant's paperwork and essays are submitted online. Irwin was one of only 520 applicants that received a STAR Scholarship last year.

"They're all so sweet," Irwin said. "It's just like having a conversation."

P.E.O. plants long roots into its community, often across generations, as membership has historically been limited to family members of P.E.O. sisters or applicants and recipients of P.E.O. funds. Carrington, who joined the organization in 1992, said that she was one of her chapter's newest members.

"Some of these people have been in it since the '40s," she added.

"It's such an opportunity and it's just helping other people," Carrington said. "And taking some of their anxiety or worry away — 'I really want to do this but I don't have the funds.'

"And to think someone like myself who does the hot dog stand, garage sales, whatever, and we can put this money in and ... it's just rewarding to see the opportunities."