UVA’s Young Women Leaders Program Turns Students Into Change Agents

Learn how the program, 20 years old this year, connects female undergraduates with middle school girls to help navigate the sometimes-rocky transition from elementary school.

K.T. Sancken and Audrey Breen

Anna Cordle, a 2015 graduate of the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education, wanted to connect with the local school population in a meaningful way. What’s more, she wanted to work with middle-school girls, a population that can be at risk for low self-esteem during the often-awkward transition from elementary to middle school.

She got that chance because of UVA’s popular Young Women Leaders Program (YWLP).

Cordle was a big sister in the program and felt like she got as much out of her mentorship role as her little sister did.

“It forges a connection between the university world and the middle school life,” Cordle said. “It breaks that wall down and takes big sisters out of that college bubble at least once a week, which is really important.”

Keyri Lopez-Godoy, now a student at Eastern Mennonite University, participated in the program as a middle school student. She credits the program for her interest in building deeper, more meaningful relationships.

“I will always be thankful to YWLP for the sister they paired me with, and for the investment they made in me to see that I had the potential to be a leader,” Lopez-Godoy said. “I learned that things are about perspective and having the right people in your life; I learned that to be cared for and supported I did not need to have hundreds of friends, but I only needed one to make a difference.”

Get Out of Your Bubble

It is said so often on college campuses that it’s become cliché: “Get out of your bubble,” referring to the short-term situation that isolates students from reality. The true nature of the world cannot be taught entirely in a classroom.

While many UVA community outreach programs aim to get students out of their bubbles, one innovative youth-mentoring project at UVA did it by designing a yearlong opportunity for female students to link academics with structured and supported engagement with area youth.

For the past 20 years, the Young Women Leaders Program, a joint effort between the Curry School of Education and the Maxine Platzer Lynn Women’s Center, has linked girls from four middle schools in the Charlottesville area with mentors who are UVA undergraduate students. In that time, the program has served more than 1,500 pairs of middle school girls and college-aged women.

“The program is a success because while you’ve got these age differences, they’re going through the same stuff,” said Jaronda Miller-Bryant, the program’s associate director. “Both have issues around identity, body image, dating – all of that. The relationship offers an opportunity for them to learn from each other.”

Designed to enhance the self-esteem and leadership skills of both the participating UVA college women and their middle school “little sisters,” the program has grown to be so much more. The model has expanded to 10 national sister sites and four international sites, and has become a bastion of research on youth development and best practices in mentoring.

Meeting the Mentoring Challenge

A hallmark of the Young Women Leaders Program is its incorporation of mentoring best practices, training, coursework and research to ensure relationships between vulnerable middle-school girls and high-achieving college women thrive.

“There are a lot of programs that say, ‘sign up to be a mentor,’ but there’s no real accountability for how much you stay engaged with that mentee,” Miller-Bryant said.  “Our program provides built-in accountability and support and it diminishes the possibility that a mentor is going to not know how to handle a sticky situation with a mentee.”

A college woman who decides to be a mentor through YWLP agrees to commit five hours a week of work to her mentee. In addition to one-on-one time, groups of 6-8 pairs of mentors and mentees meet together two hours a week after school to discuss issues like women’s representation in the media and relational aggression. The mentors also take a concurrent three-credit college course on adolescent development and best practices in mentoring, which provides insights into their mentees’ behaviors as well as support for difficult situations.

This approach is unique both for the ongoing nature of the training and its focus on the developmental needs of the mentees, said Edith “Winx” Lawrence, a professor of education and director and co-founder of the program.

“Parenting a middle school girl can be hard, so why wouldn’t mentoring one be hard?” she said. “Girls this age tend to roll eyes and suck teeth when they don’t like something; it can be difficult to stay engaged in a relationship during these times. We wanted to give [mentors] a level of training and support that enabled them to successfully navigate these relational challenges with their mentees.”

Researching Relationships

With each new piece of curriculum, the program brought UVA students out of their bubbles of academic abstraction and into the tangible worlds of local girls. Yet even this required research to see if it worked. Was the program actually building participants’ confidence, connection and autonomy? Or were the planned activities just fun?

Starting in 2004, research led by Curry School faculty members Nancy Deutsch, Joanna Lee Williams, and Winx Lawrence (supported by grants from the U.S. Department of Education, the W.T. Grant Foundation and the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Juvenile Justice and Prevention) looked at how successful the program has been at supporting positive development for both the middle school girls and college women.

The most unexpected result of these studies was how both the mentors and the mentees grew in their appreciation for difference and in their ability to understand relational resilience, which is the ability to make a relationship last.

This occurred even though most of the girls were not friends prior to joining YWLP. The middle school girls nominated for the program include girls from different peer and cultural groups within their schools. Similarly, the mentors in the Young Women Leaders Program are recruited from across disciplines and often do not know each other. The mentoring group format of YWLP brings them into contact with both girls and other college students who they may not have interacted with otherwise.  

“When we interviewed girls and mentors about their experience, we heard themes around this idea of discovering that you could be friends with people you didn’t think you could be friends with, because you thought you never had anything in common,” Deutsch said.

The importance of helping mentors and mentees establish strong and effective relationships despite challenges was a second interesting finding of the program’s research.

Difficulty and conflict in relationships are normal,” Deutsch said. “It’s not about not having moments of difficulty or disconnection or conflict, it’s about, ‘How do you recover from those?’”

“From our research we have identified five mentoring competencies we believe mentors need in order to develop and sustain an effective relationship over time,” noted Winx Lawrence. “These competencies are a positive attitude, collaboration, empathy and attunement, initiative and persistence, and basic mentoring knowledge. We hypothesize that as the mentors develop and model these skills in YWLP, their mentees learn them as well.”

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