Young Women Leaders Program kindles friendship through mentorship

Powerful women inspiring, educating and guiding other powerful women

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Nicole Baker and her "little sister" after they found words in magazines to describe their personal attributes. Courtesy of Nicole Baker

When third-year Curry student Nicole Baker first entered the University, she knew she wanted to make her college experience meaningful by immersing herself in something she’s deeply passionate about. After encouragement from her friends, Baker decided serving as a mentor in the Young Women Leaders Program (YWLP) might be the path for her. In joining the program, she was prepared to be selfless and take on mentoring a young, middle school aged girl — what she didn't expect was to be paired with a little girl who would help Baker herself grow and develop as a strong woman and leader.

The two worked together in the program for two years — a year longer than the standard mentoring partnership — but the girls’ relationship can hardly be described as work. The two formed an instant connection, which has continued to strengthen even after Baker switched from mentoring to a more administrative position, interning for YWLP and the Women’s Center. Through YWLP, both girls found a lifetime friend, a meaningful source of support and a lifetime sister.

When people hear the word “mentorship,” many envision a perfect person instructing a younger, inexperienced, often lost individual. This misconstruction about what it means to serve as a mentor is one of the many things Young Women’s Leadership Program strives to elucidate.

Founded in 1998 by former Curry Prof. Edith “Winx” Lawrence and her former graduate student Kimberly Roberts, YWLP is a mentorship based program that recognizes the potential of all women to become successful leaders. The program pairs middle school aged girls with undergraduate University students to create a relationship in which they bring out the strongest assets in each other. University students are paired with mentees from local Buford, Burley, Jouett and Sutherland middle schools.

In its 21 years on Grounds, YWLP has continued to grow while holding true to its original purpose. Associate Program Director Jaronda Miller-Bryant works on the administration side of YWLP. She spoke on program’s origins and the vitality of its commitment.

“There’s actually research to support the idea that when young girls reach middle-school age, their self-confidence begins to decline and they become less and less sure of themselves,” Miller-Bryant said. “Lawrence noticed this in her then middle school aged girls and launched this program as an effort to counteract some of those challenges young girls face around this age.”

There are numerous factors that go into determining who could best benefit from the program. The “little sisters” — the term for the middle school aged mentees — are the primary focus of the program, so the program coordinators work with school counselors from various middle schools to ensure they select the most appropriate candidates.

“Some girls may be struggling and some are already leaders, so we try to get a good demographic of both those who are already excelling leaders and those who need a little push in the leadership direction,” Miller-Bryant said.

Miller-Bryant explained that the program should not be mistaken as a project working to target “at risk” girls by any means. The program seeks to pair young girls who possess great potential with older, college aged girls who can help them tune into their strengths, to develop and thrive using their natural skills.

“I think when people hear mentoring they automatically assume that the girls are ‘at risk,’ but that’s not generally how we operate — we try not to think of things as a deficit,” Miller-Bryant said. “We want to pull out the girls’ strengths, so using words like “at risk” can be a problem. Part of [our goal] is to reframe the language that we use and steer away from any negativity.”

Big sisters take a Curry class called “Issues Facing Adolescent Girls,” which offers curriculum and guidelines for the bigs to follow in order to help cultivate the best bond with their little that they can. The girls are encouraged to tailor the mentoring experience to their littles specifically and what they need from the relationship. The curriculum serves as a general guideline for the experience — not a strict, detached rulebook.

While each big-little relationship is entirely different, the YWLP mission statement remains the same across all chapters and between all pairs.

“The mission statement is ‘confidence, connection, autonomy,’” said Mentoring Coordinator for YWLP Sarah Tucker Jenkins. “The thought behind it is that we’re trying to help middle school girls foster those three important pieces of themselves because everyone can get there, but we all need a little extra help in middle school.”

YWLP seeks to ensure bigs and littles work together to learn more about each other and themselves, all while adhering to the values expressed in their mission statement.

“We want our pairs to be partnerships,” Jenkins said. “So certainly the bigs have knowledge for the littles, but we really believe it goes both ways and while the little sisters may have a little less life experience, there are other types of knowledge that they have that bigs may not have.” 

The mutual growth element is what really sets this program apart from others. Though the littles are and will always be the priority, the program doesn’t see its mentors as powerful people sent to “fix” anyone. They’re sent to develop a beautiful, sisterly bond to genuinely grow and learn from one another.

Prior to taking on a more administrative role as a YWLP and Women’s Center intern, Baker has served as a big sister for two years. She revealed that during “one-on-one” times with their little sisters, mentors don’t focus on curriculum-based activities. 

“Our role is to be like a sister or friend to them when we hang out with them,” Baker said. “It’s purely to spend quality time together so we don’t feel like another parent or teacher. I genuinely want to be a friend who’s just a little more experienced in life and who’s been through the same things that my little has.”

Being a big sister means more than just helping a middle schooler with homework, laughing with them and talking through what life throws at them — although it does consist of all of those things. One of the paramount elements of the relationship is having that pseudo-sisterly bond.

“I’m the baby of my family — I just have an older brother — so having a little sister through YWLP was a really cool experience, it was something I’ve never gotten to have before,” Baker said. “YWLP makes relationships feel really genuine, it actually is a pairing with someone really close to you, who becomes like a member of your family.”

YWLP recruitment for fall 2019 begins this spring. Though the program may seem like just another extracurricular opportunity to some people, for big sisters like Baker, the program has taken her University experience to the next level. Through YWLP, the littles enter a journey with their bigs nurturing their self-confidence and leadership potential, but the bigs are rewarded with an experience of their own as their littles too, inspiring and changing their lives.

“For me, personally, my college career would look extremely different if I hadn’t been a part of YWLP,” Baker said. “It led me to meet so many different people I wouldn’t have come into contact with otherwise. YWLP is full of people … young and old with huge hearts who really want make a difference, so having that bond together is a really special thing you get to share.”

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