U.Va. Program Teaches Girls to Become Leaders

Oct. 29, 2007 — They learn how to use the ABCs of problem solving, be "gossip guards" and "zap the zingers."

Over the past 10 years, middle-school girls participating in the Young Women Leaders Program at the University of Virginia Women's Center have learned to make better choices, develop self-confidence, create positive connections with others and become independent. The mentoring program, co-sponsored by the Women's Center and the Curry School of Education, recently received a $500,000, three-year grant from the U.S. Department of Education to pair more budding teenagers with college women. The grant will enable the program to double its size from 40 girls in one year to 80 girls who can continue in the program for three years.

Since it began in 1997, the program has involved almost 950 middle-school girls, 975 undergraduate women and 55 graduate women. School administrators and guidance counselors select girls for YWLP who might be deemed "at risk" because of their environment but have shown potential to become emerging leaders.

The girls are assigned mentors, U.Va. students who volunteer and undergo training. They meet both one-on-one and at weekly small-group gatherings, held at one of four area middle schools or the U.Va. Women's Center. Trained undergraduate students act as group facilitators, while others conduct research on the effectiveness of the program and related topics.

"In middle school, both boys and girls spend an increasing amount of time with their peers and less time with their families, but they are not necessarily able to give each other good advice," said Edith "Winx" Lawrence, a clinical psychologist and professor in the Curry School of Education who co-founded and co-directs the Young Women Leaders Program. These children are faced with making significant decisions at an earlier age and can benefit from the advice of successful young adults, she said.

Although the problems of adolescent boys have received much attention lately, adolescent girls face many of the same issues — whether to drink alcohol or take drugs, to join a gang or to engage in sexual behavior, for instance. Girls are at greater risk of dating violence and more vulnerable to getting a sexually transmitted disease or developing eating disorders, Lawrence said, as well as being subject to the life-altering, long-term consequence of pregnancy, which often causes them to drop out of school.

While they may not engage in physical fights as often as boys, girls experience other kinds of social aggression with their peers — behavior that is directed at harming another's friendships, social status or self-esteem, Lawrence said.

Middle-school girls, as well as boys, need better support at this age, and guidance from college students often seems more attractive and useful to them than parental advice even when it mirrors what the parents offer, Lawrence said. The program's curriculum has been developed based on the most current research on mentoring adolescent girls.

"The Young Women Leaders Program helps the girls learn how to make healthy decisions that empower them," said YWLP co-director Dawn Leigh Anderson, who also directs the diversity and mentoring program at the U.Va. Women's Center.

Along with supporting their psychological needs, the program helps the girls develop leadership skills. The ABCs of problem-solving entails assessing a problem, brainstorming solutions and choosing the best option. If YWLP participants witness someone making a negative comment about another girl, they can question that individual about why she said that, encourage her to examine her feelings and counter with something positive; that's being a "gossip guard." And because adolescent girls also are prone to negative feelings about themselves, such as becoming overly critical of their looks, the program teaches them to identify those put-downs about themselves or others and "zap the zinger" by giving them ways to boost self-esteem.

Surveys of 107 girls who participated in YWLP between 2003 and 2006 found they were significantly more likely to intercede in bullying than comparison groups. Approximately 75 percent of the girls also reported being better prepared to deal with problems, support their friends, listen to others with different views from their own and think about their futures.

The one-year program will expand from one to three years under the new grant, giving girls two years with the same mentor; in the third year, a YWLP alumnae club will help ease the transition to high school. Research shows that girls get more out of a mentoring relationship if it lasts at least a year, Lawrence said.

The YWLP has been successful in making good matches, with only one mentor being terminated in its 10-year history. The undergraduate mentors take two academic service-learning courses, "Issues Facing Adolescent Girls" and "Fostering Leadership in Girls and Women," during their year of mentoring and receive weekly supervision as part of this.

The co-directors note that YWLP is one of the most racially diverse undergraduate student programs at U.Va., with 40 percent of the mentors being women of color and about half of the girls being minorities.

Over the years, the program has increased its community involvement. Groups participate in projects, such as the annual AIDS Walk, and create a "legacy project" to give back to their school. A workshop for parents and other family-oriented social events are also offered.

YWLP alumnae groups were piloted last year and focused on learning technology (the girls made their own iMovies), putting health and fitness into practice with yoga and self-defense classes and starting their own book clubs.

The Young Women Leaders Program has expanded beyond the local area. At least nine sister sites have been established, most of them at other cities in Virginia and associated with other universities, including Georgetown. Groups have blossomed in Florida and Tennessee — and Mozambique.

Lawrence's daughter, Meredith, once a YWLP mentor and now a Peace Corps worker, adapted the program for the town of Maxixe. It has been so successful, the Peace Corps decided to dedicate a volunteer to continue the program for another two years.