U.Va. women encourage leadership
fourth-year student Emily Green, right, cheers alongside 12-year-old
little sister Doreen Duno, middle, and 13-year-old Keireah
Morton during a skit that was part of the Young Women Leaders
Program graduation ceremony held April 18 at U.Va.
By Matt Kelly
can learn a lot from a big sister.
Young Women Leaders Program, which pairs middle school girls
age women, is an education for both sides.
C. Winx Lawrence
jointly by the Curry School of Education and the U.Va. Womens
Center, the leadership program has served about 400 middle school
girls, with help of about 250 college mentors, in its five years
of existence, said Edith C. Winx Lawrence, co-director
and co-founder of the program with Kim Roberts, director of mentoring
for the center.
into formal and informal elements, the program features weekly
two-hour sessions in which mentors and middle school girls discuss
a spectrum of issues, including leadership, decision-making and
teaches the little sisters skills needed to be leaders and helps
them recognize the skills that they already possess, said
Sarah Brown, a mentor in the program before her U.Va. graduation
mentors encourage the girls to realize they have choices and to
rely on their inner strength, Roberts said. They do not teach
skills or try to persuade the younger girls to act a certain way.
knew first-hand what a difficult period middle school was, and
I wanted to help the girls in the program not only get through
middle school, but help them become confident in themselves and
their abilities, Brown said.
their formal sessions, the girls and their mentors examine sticky
situations, such as pressure from boys or coping with friends
who smoke. They present the issue and the group suggests approaches,
analyzes choices and discusses decisions.
girls can find middle school confusing and they are eager to have
a big sister [with whom] they can talk about major issues,
Lawrence said. To middle school girls, college women are
terrific. They are not old, like their mothers, and they are wise
college women find that it is nice to help someone with their
problems many of which they are also still wrestling with,
including decisions about relationships, substance abuse, concentrating
on schoolwork and focusing on their futures.
offers them opportunities to look at things and think differently,
The younger girls must set a personal goal and perform a community
service project with their mentors.
mentors are strongly encouraged to have informal, personal contact
with the middle school girls for at least one hour each week,
with typical activities ranging from concerts and sporting events
to slumber parties and cookie-baking sessions, Roberts said.
said the genesis for the program came partially from her own experience.
She was amazed at how her own two junior high school daughters
got weak in the knees about themselves and where they were
going, she recalled. At the same time, Womens Center
director Sharon Davie was talking about projects to contribute
to the community.
response, Lawrence decided to pair two parts of the community
most ghettoized middle school girls and college
women. Girls at these ages, she said, tend to associate mostly
with themselves and could benefit from contact with outsiders.
One of her daughters, now a rising third-year student at U.Va.,
is a mentor.
in 1997 with only eight mentors and middle school girls, the program
now has 11 groups, each consisting of eight college women, eight
middle school girls and a facilitator. What began as a semester-long
exercise has been expanded to year-round.
are many success stories, Lawrence said, including a shy eighth-grader
who won her schools leadership award and a girl with difficulty
making friends who improved her grades and reduced her discipline
referrals. In one case, a mentor and a mother worked together
to help an eighth-grader being pressured by an older boy.
80 percent of youngsters get through middle school without significant
problems, Lawrence said, but the mentoring program helps them
focus on going further, not just getting through. Exposure to
U.Va. students makes college seem possible to the younger girls,
middle school girls are selected by guidance counselors and principals
who are seeking emerging leaders. The program has expanded to
include more at-risk students living in or near poverty, many
of whom have family disruptions that make school difficult, Roberts
are benefits for the college women, who get to know each other
in a healthy atmosphere, Lawrence said. U.Va. is large and it
is sometimes hard for women to make a meaningful connection
in a social setting free of a party atmosphere, she said.
women must compete to participate, with essays and interviews
winnowing the applicant pool by about half. Between 40 and 60
women attend a semester of training classes before they are ready
to work with their younger sisters, Roberts said.
mentors find that they get at least as much as they give.
is a great experience for both the little and big sisters,
Brown said. As much as a big sister has to share with her
little sister, the little sisters have to give in return with