Students launch mentorship program for local girls

Media Credit: Sam Hardgrove | Hatchet Staff Photographer

Mackenzie Dart, Alex Murray, Rebecca Galanti, Alaina Noronha and Renee Underhill are directors of the GW chapter of Women and Youth Supporting Each Other, a nonprofit that mentors local middle school students about sex education, sexism and bullying to promote a more comfortable and accepting community for young girls.

Metal detectors and mandatory uniforms are just some of the differences between GW and Jefferson Academy, a public middle school in Southwest D.C.

But a new student organization, GW Women and Youth Supporting Each Other, is looking to find what they have in common.

The mentorship program matches female college students with middle school girls to discuss topics like sex education, sexism, female empowerment and bullying. WYSE focuses on one-on-one engagement and uses a curriculum that gives mentors specific topics to address each week.

The members had specific criteria to meet when they selected Jefferson Academy for this semester: The school had to be receiving Title I funding, which means a majority of students get free or reduced-price lunches and many of their families are below the poverty line.

Mackenzie Dart, a sophomore and one of five student co-directors, first heard about WYSE last spring when the organization’s national board approached the Women’s Leadership Program at GW. She said the group will aim to “break down the Foggy Bottom bubble that GW students often limit themselves to.”

The GW branch is just getting off the ground: The group of nine students has started making weekly trips to Jefferson Academy, and members are not quite at the point of one-on-one mentoring, which WYSE emphasizes.

“Right now, we’re just trying to get something started at the school, make a connection with the kids,” Dart said. “Eventually, we want it to be a one-on-one process. There are a number of stories of mentors who stayed in close contact with their mentee all the way through the mentee’s time at college.”

They start each session with a group discussion about a pre-determined topic. They try to tackle challenging subjects, from healthy sex lives to abuse, and relate to middle schoolers who may come from difficult home situations.

“We have activities that help to break down [tough subjects] so that they aren’t as daunting [to] bring them down to a more comfortable level,” Dart said. “We recognize that most seventh and eighth grade girls are too nervous to talk, so we have so we try to get creative with getting them to interact.”

The co-directors — Dart, Alex Murray, Renee Underhill, Rebecca Galanti and Alaina Noronha — have worked toward launching a WYSE branch at GW since the summer by attending training events and working with the national board.

The co-directors said the nature of the program brings the mentors closer to each other, and part of the training is simply bonding with each other. They said they spent most of fall semester breaking down barriers within their own group.

Dart described one night when the mentors were training for their roles: They played sleepover-themed games to get into the mindset of 12-year-old girls, except instead of gossiping about crushes, they posed tough questions about each others’ lives.

Underhill said the relationships the mentors build with each other are essential to the program’s success.

“It’s really important to know that the other mentors are on our team, that we truly know each other, that it’s a nonjudgemental community,” Underhill said.

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