Growing up, I have to admit, there weren’t too many people I looked up to that I could turn to for future life advice. My heroes were far off and admirable, but not close by and connectable. Kids who had that coach, mentor, or guide always seemed to have someone in their corner to offer advice or expand their thinking in ways they had not considered. I admit, I was fiercely independent, and eventually found my own way and sought out people who could be those mentors, but it wasn’t until college and beyond when I realized the value those people could serve, and everything I had been missing.
For girls, strong female mentors can help provide role models of how to carve pathways in non-traditional and sometimes bumpy career choices. While we hope in this day and age, the road has smoothed in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math), the truth is that many women still report being treated unequally to their male colleagues in both academia and the workplace. Having female mentors and colleagues to help guide girls along these routes and keep girls going, even on bad days, may end up keeping many more girls and women in these fields which benefits everyone, and in the end, may end up re-shaping the culture for the good.
Research has shown the most impactful time to introduce a girls’ mentor program is at the start of 5th and 6th grades before girls lose their voices, before they feel silenced and just as puberty begins. It is (not coincidentally) at the same moment that boys begin, often for the first time, to gain physical stature over girls, and inherit societal stature over girls as well. Girls for their part begin to grow breasts and hips, and suddenly become vulnerable to cat-calls, leers, and sexual assault at a whole new level, and suddenly their “looks” become all they are seemingly judged by (if you measure what magazine covers, stories, and social media seems to cover). The shift between the different genders is dramatic and lost on no one. Adding a mentor at this age can be impactful, and can mitigate some of these messages, although truthfully, not all. It’s about going from the #METOO generation to the #NOTME generation for both girls and boys and that is the true goal of both mentor programs.
Girls respond to mentors who are outside of their family and teacher circle—to female role models who share some common interest or future goal and can connect to them. The Girls’ Mentor Program at Woodland is made of amazing female volunteers from all walks of life who are matched to our girls because of some interest each pair has. Yet that alone is not enough to kick a relationship off—5th and 6th grade girls are not known to be naturally socially adept with brand new adults, and so we have designed the program with a curricular arc of goals for each meeting (one each month—vision boards, problem solving, risk taking, etc.) paired with a fun activity which matches the goal of that month so that each month when the pairs get together they are introduced to the goal of the event, then do the activity together, then debrief the activity. Sometimes the activities are easier than others (Top Chef vs. Blindfolded Rock Climbing to get out of their comfort zone) but the goals are clear and the debriefs are powerful. Ultimately, over time, the relationships are built between the pairs (and truthfully, between the families of the mentees and the mentors as well).
For boys, the purpose of the mentor program is somewhat different, and as a result happens at a different point in their life, with different people, and with different goals. For boys, who often have many role models available in their fields of interest with fewer barriers, our goals were instead around building emotional literacy, leadership, problem solving and communication skills prior to entering high school. Boys tend to mature slightly later and therefore have a greater capacity to benefit from this kind of program by 7th and 8th grade so that is the age we targeted this program to. We also asked that if at all possible, mentors be family members (fathers, uncles, etc.). We felt learning these skills alongside their “mentee” and often simultaneously made for great lessons for all involved. We even had some mentors share with us they themselves had not had the benefit of this kind of experience growing up. Our hope is that by expanding emotional literacy for all boys beyond the traditional range of just happiness and anger, boys will have an expanded ability to have successful and healthy relationships and family lives in the future.
The boys program also meets approximately monthly with a curricular arc of goals and matching hands-on activities designed to give both mentors and mentees a way of learning about themselves and each other through the activity (complete with debrief).
Finally, we are completely aware that not every student defines themselves as binary and our mentor program allows our students to decide which program they wish to participate in, and which gender mentor they wish to have and/or if they wish to have a transgender mentor if a student and their family is more comfortable with that. Our goal is to make this program as successful as we can for every student and family in it. We know from past experience the more a student’s family is involved in the program, the more successful the mentor/mentee relationship will be. This year we have no less than 4 sets of returning mentor/mentee pairs continuing on for a second year together.
While Mentors may not ease all the discomforts of adolescence, it does take a village, and mentors can be a wonderful part of that village, and for their part, they grow and learn, and have almost as much fun as our students do!