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Slight change in press’ name confirms University’s support
Call for nominations: Zintl leadership award
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New Supervisor Orientation Program
U.Va. women encourage leadership
U.Va. women encourage leadership
Young Women Leaders
Rising 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

You can learn a lot from a big sister.

The Young Women Leaders Program, which pairs middle school girls with college-
age women, is an education for both sides.

Edith “Winx” Lawrence
Edith C. “Winx” Lawrence

Run jointly by the Curry School of Education and the U.Va. Women’s 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.

Broken 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 self-esteem.

“It 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 this month.

Kim Roberts
Kim Roberts

The 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.

“I 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.

In 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.

“Young 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 and experienced.”

The 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.

“It offers them opportunities to look at things and think differently,” Lawrence said.
The younger girls must set a personal goal and perform a community service project with their mentors.

The 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.

Lawrence 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, Women’s Center director Sharon Davie was talking about projects to contribute to the community.

In 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.

Started 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.

There are many success stories, Lawrence said, including a shy eighth-grader who won her school’s 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.

About 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, Lawrence said.

The 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 said.

There 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.

College 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.

Many mentors find that they get at least as much as they give.

“It 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 their ‘bigs.’”


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