In February 2019, Boy Scouts of America, after 110 years of boys-only programming, for the first time in the organization's history permitted girls to earn the rank of Eagle Scout.
From there, the race was on. And Emerson Domke, then a senior at Mountain View High School, was ready.
After countless hours of hard work, she has become one of the first female Eagle Scouts in the U.S. and the first in the Bay Area to pass the review board requirement to earn the rank, according to Michelle McIntyre, spokesperson for the scouting organization's Silicon Valley Monterey Bay Council. An Eagle Scout ranking is the highest ranking available to youth within the organization.
While Domke was new to being part of Scouts BSA – the new name that Boy Scouts of America adopted after it began to accept girls within its ranks – she was already familiar with many broader elements of scouting. She had been involved with Girl Scouts from 1st through 8th grade, worked at a Boy Scout summer camp, and participated in a co-ed scouting program through the White Stag Leadership Academy in Monterey, she said in an interview.
She decided to join BSA for several reasons, she said. Domke wanted to set an example and serve as a leader and mentor for younger female scouts, who might be more intimidated when they joined. She also has a number of male family members who are Eagle Scouts, she said. But once she learned it would be possible for her to earn an Eagle ranking – by meeting all of the requirements in a mere 19 months, the least amount of time possible – she became even more excited about the idea.
"I knew I wanted to join once I knew I could reach Eagle," she said.
From there, Domke developed a careful and ambitious plan to make up for lost time – traditionally, scouts have from around age 11 until their 18th birthday to meet the numerous requirements. BSA mandates that each Eagle Scout spend six months as a Life Scout, earn 21 merit badges, serve in his or her troop for at least six months, and complete the notoriously challenging Eagle Scout Service Project, all by or shortly after the scout's 18th birthday.
'You definitely stand out as a girl'
The Boy Scouts organization had run for nearly 110 years before letting any girls in, and coming into an organization with such a strong boys-only tradition as a high school senior felt strange at first, she said.
"You definitely stand out as a girl," she said. "It's definitely intimidating if you're not used to it."
But being the only girl, or one among a small minority of girls, was not something new for Domke. As an engineering student, and as a participant on her internationally-competitive robotics team, she said she is used to being outnumbered by boys in activities she enjoyed.
Fortunately, she said, as a young woman pursuing engineering and robotics she'd felt supported and included by teachers and mentors, which gave her confidence in joining other male-dominated activities.
Being one of a small minority of female employees at a Boy Scout summer camp, where she was a merit badge instructor teaching subjects such as photography and ceramics, also helped her get used to the dynamics of boy scout troops.
"I feel a lot more comfortable than I think a lot of my peers are," she said.
When asked if she preferred Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts, she said that it's a tough question. She participated in the programs at different ages, and the things each program teaches are different. Girl Scouts, which she participated in from first through eighth grade, is focused on women empowering young women, while BSA is more focused on empowerment through the spread of knowledge, she said. They're equal and people who do both enjoy them both, she said, but personally, she favors BSA.
It wasn't far into Domke's scouting journey when a significant obstacle emerged: college. After graduating from Mountain View High School in 2019, she enrolled at the University of Colorado Boulder to study mechanical engineering. In an effort to manage both a rigorous college workload and meet her accelerated scouting goals, she spent the bulk of last summer working ahead on the requirements, leaving about the last third of the work, including her Eagle project, to do this summer.
For her Eagle Project, she and volunteers assembled 500 personal health kits for homeless students in the San Jose School District. Each kit includes a reusable cloth mask, paper mask, hand sanitizer, thermometer, facial tissues, gloves, and a note with CDC guidelines, according to a press release. Assembling these kits required organizing about 20 people to contribute a total of 160 volunteer hours – all while the pandemic and the CZU fires were under way, Domke said. She said she had to spend many extra hours planning COVID-19 safety measures and checking in with volunteers to make sure they were healthy before they arrived.
Ultimately, she wrapped up the requirements around mid- to late-September, she said. And while Scouts BSA plans to announce the inaugural class of female Eagle Scouts nationwide in February, Domke said she is the first in the Bay Area to attain the rank.
"Earning the rank of Eagle Scout takes hard work and perseverance, and we are honored to recognize Emerson Domke for this significant accomplishment,” said Jason Stein, CEO of the Silicon Valley Monterey Bay Council of Boy Scouts of America, in a statement. “Along the journey to Eagle Scout, young people gain new skills, learn to overcome obstacles and demonstrate leadership among their peers and in their communities. These benefits are invaluable for everyone, and we are thrilled that they are now available to even more youth."
Domke said there's a lot from the program she plans to take with her into adulthood. In addition to fond memories of backpacking and camping trips in the Sierras and Big Basin, she said, she values skills she's learned like cooking, camping, taking care of oneself, and figuring out how to plan a trip.
Her biggest takeaway from the program, she added, is learning how to make a long-term plan and stick to it.
Domke says her scouting days are far from over, though. She has about a year and half to wait until she's 21, at which point she'll be old enough to participate in scouting as an adult leader. The troop she joined still maintains separate male and female leaders for each group, although they participate in activities together. For female troops in particular, there has been a shortage of women to lead vigorous outdoor trips – and she's looking forward to becoming that leader for younger female scouts.
She said she plans to continue to participate in outdoors trips near her college in Colorado and continue to set an example of how to succeed in male-dominated spheres.
While Domke may be the first local female Eagle Scout, the growing number of female BSA scouts indicates she won't be the last. While her troop has about 40 to 50 boys and 17 girls, the number of girls enrolled now is up substantially, from six about a year and a half ago, she said. The recruitment period for new scouts typically happens around February.