In Its 25th Year, UVA Mentoring Program Thrives, Continues Legacy of Impact for Middle School Girls

While many mentoring programs paused or ended during the pandemic, UVA’s Young Women Leaders Program refocused and built on their foundation of fostering youth competence, connection, and autonomy.

Leslie M. Booren

Chenelle Miller, a 4th year UVA student, laughs as she recalls an on-going joke about heights between her and her middle school mentee. Miller was a “big,” or female college student mentor, in the Young Women Leaders Program (YWLP). She was paired with a middle school student, or “little,” who already towered over her despite their age difference.

“My little that semester was a lot taller than me and so anytime we would go out in public or to YWLP events, everyone would be like ‘well who's the little?’ and we’d all laugh,” said Miller. “People were always thinking I was the little just because I was short!”

Miller has been involved with YWLP for three years, first as a big and now as a facilitator, or as she describes it, a “mentor to the mentors.” Her second year as a big was challenging because it was during some of the most difficult times of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The pandemic created many challenges for youth mentoring programs, and many paused or folded. However, YWLP not only survived, it returned to its foundation and was able to endure with a curriculum that fosters youth competence, connection, and autonomy.

Developed and launched in 1997 by scholars at the UVA School of Education and Human Development in partnership with the UVA Women’s Center, YWLP empowers middle school girls as leaders in their schools and communities. Youth-Nex, the UVA Center to Promote Effective Youth Development, has been supporting research and evaluation of the program over the last decade.

“YWLP is great at creating space for community, both in group and one-on-one spaces,” said Melissa Levy, YWLP program director of instruction and assistant professor at the UVA School of Education and Human Development and Youth-Nex. “And community is something we all needed during the pandemic!”

Along with community, YWLP has a rich history of turning students into change agents.

“What is unique about the YWLP curriculum or the syllabus that we create for the students is that it reflects where we are as a society,” explained Sarah Jenkins, the program coordinator for YWLP. “The core components remain the same, how to be a good mentor and leader, but the activities and content can be flexible based on students’ current needs.”

With the pandemic starting near the end of a school year, the challenge of anticipating student needs started during the summer of 2020. Jenkins said they didn’t know how this legacy program would happen, but it was the student mentors who advocated for it to continue virtually. Their hard work paid off and paved the way for more flexibility with virtual sessions that continue now.  

Mentoring Competencies at Work

The YWLP curriculum outlines core mentoring competencies that include positive attitude (or zest), collaboration (or teamwork), empathy and attunement (or heart), initiative and perseverance (or grit), and mentoring knowledge (or brains). The UVA students embodied these competencies as YWLP pivoted during the pandemic.

Zest: A growth mindset and enthusiasm.

“We really wanted to be humane, recognizing the humanity and suffering during this time,” said Jenkins. “Fatigue of everything was real, so we focused on quality over quantity. We recognized that everyone was stuck at home on their computers, and so we wanted it to be fun, engaging and not a chore.”

Miller said their former leadership days transitioned into unstructured times where bigs and littles could play games and connect.

“During the pandemic we had littles from many schools, since we were virtual and less school specific,” explained Miller. “Instead of seeing people from their middle school only, the littles would see kids they hadn’t seen since elementary school. They hadn't seen these friends in a while and then they were on Zoom with them, so it was kind of cool and fun!”

This enthusiasm has continued as YWLP currently wraps up another successful school year.

Teamwork: Positive communication and mutuality.

Jenkins said that the team of YWLP facilitators played an important role in the decisions to pivot during the pandemic. Leigh Kesser, a 4th year UVA student, was a YWLP facilitator during this time and recalled that it was a time to lean on others.

“Early in COVID was a time when everyone had a tendency to go in on ourselves, but in YWLP we leaned on each other which was especially important during this time of need,” explained Kesser.

“We built a team or community in an environment where we didn’t know that would be possible,” said Kesser. “We cultivated trust and the youth had an opportunity to do something outside of school. I was grateful for it!”

Heart: Appreciation of differences and youth-centered interactions.

The pandemic forced YWLP mentors to focus on relationships even more than they did in previous years. Miller remembered that on Zoom it was harder to pay attention to body language and other cues from the littles, which was a significant part of their training as bigs previously.

“YWLP always had the active listening component and taught us to be empathetic listeners,” said Miller. “But on Zoom, I had to pick up on different nuances of what the youth would say.”

“I started asking more follow-up questions, like how did you feel about that or if they say that they set a goal,” explained Miller. “Then I’d make sure to check in with them the next week.”

YWLP built in activities and provided more space for these youth-centered interactions in the virtual platform.

Grit: Problem solving, creativity and adaptability.

“We're always in learning mode,” said Jenkins. “Our entire program has to have a growth mindset because we build in opportunities for feedback each week.”

When Kesser reflected on her experience as a facilitator, she said that they were consistently reconceptualizing what bigs needed and what the littles wanted. Patience and flexibility were key during the pandemic.

“We are changing things every year, and we make notes of what students like or don't like, what suggestions they have,” said Jenkins. “But during the pandemic we focused on wanting to provide good for where students were and what their bandwidth was.”

Although perseverance and adaptability are core components of YWLP, it was especially important during COVID.

Brains: Expectation, development, and best practices.

Innovation became a best practice in the pandemic for YWLP.

“I think innovation was the number one thing that the bigs learned to do better,” said Miller. “We had to use what we had, and innovate, or think of new ways to dig deeper with our activities or games.”

With the focus on the middle schoolers and their needs constantly shifting during COVID, the student leaders were constantly being creative but also attuned to their YWLP best practices.

As Kesser supported the bigs, there was a focus on development and alignment with individual gifts.

“We were learning how to build with others and execute changes as a group on an almost weekly basis,” explained Kesser. “We had to lean in as a group of mentors, but also give the youth agency and space to grow.”

YWLP Now & in the Future

Levy knows that YWLP was a sustaining space during the pandemic and into this year for both bigs and littles. Connection and unique social opportunities were important during a time when there were no routines, but that is still true now.

“The community-building aspects of the class and YWLP group meetings provided an opportunity for students to connect in ways that had mostly been removed from them by the COVID-19 pandemic,” explained Levy. “While YWLP has always been a place for students to make meaningful connections, its unique positionality at that particular time turned out to be profound for the participants.”

YWLP was in-person this year and managed to stay that way the whole year.

“I think students’ prior experiences with virtual mentoring actually made us more flexible this year,” said Jenkins. “I know some of our groups ended up having the occasional virtual meeting when group was cancelled by a snow day or students had early dismissal.”

Having the experience from the pandemic has allowed YWLP to grow in new and exciting ways, in structure and content. 

Although some continuing pandemic protocols precluded YWLP from being able to do any large events in-person, they are looking forward to hopefully being able to add that element back into the program next year.


If you are a UVA student interested in becoming a big or student mentor, YWLP is currently accepting applications. The deadline is rolling, so apply now to finalize your fall schedule! Learn more at:

Young Women Leaders Project

Since its founding in 1997, YWLP has grown to serve 7th and 8th grade girls in four Central Virginia middle schools by pairing them with UVA undergraduate mentors. More than a dozen “sister sites” have been founded using the YWLP model around the US and internationally. YWLP is a research-based mentoring program that incorporates all of the recently recommended thirteen “best practices” in mentoring.

News Information