Mentor program still going Strong

Now in its second year, membership in the campus mentoring program Strong Women, Strong Girls has already more than tripled, from last year’s eight mentors to this year’s 25.

The program is under the leadership of Grace DeForest, a senior operations research and statistics major, and Breanna Zwart, a senior majoring in international relations and directing.

The program’s mission, according to its website, is “to create communities of strong and successful women today, and supporting the strong and successful women of tomorrow.”

The mission statement appealed to first-year economics major Destiny Ridguard, who decided to apply to the program this year.

“I think it’s interesting that we get to work in tandem with other female CMU students working towards a similar goal of empowerment,” Ridguard said.

Strong Women, Strong Girls was founded in 2000 by Lindsay Hyde, a student at Harvard University. The program arrived at Carnegie Mellon through Linda Babcock of the Heinz School, who served on its board of directors in Boston in the spring of the 2005–2006 school year.

Carnegie Mellon is the first university outside of Boston to offer the program.

This year, the program will focus on decreasing violence.

“There is a rise in violence in Pittsburgh community. Therefore, we need to bring strong women to speak to the girls,” DeForest said.

The program targets girls from grades three to five who live in at-risk and low-income communities, which are particularly prone to violence, the leaders said.

In the spring semester, Strong Women, Strong Girls will study the history of violence in communities nearby and the female role models who have made an impact on decreasing violence throughout the world.

The program was also well-suited to Pittsburgh, DeForest and Zwart said, because Pittsburgh’s demographics show a great discrepancy in the ratio of males to females, much like Carnegie Mellon’s campus.

Last year, the program consisted of eight mentors who worked with about 25 girls in a group tutoring format. This year, Zwart and DeForest have recruited 25 mentors and about 100 girls at four different elementary schools around Pittsburgh.

Strong Women, Strong Girls uses a set curriculum to teach the girls skills that they need to succeed.

Such skills include communication, critical thinking and leadership. To accomplish this, they engage in negotiation workshops and other activities to strengthen interpersonal skills, while simultaneously helping the girls with their homework.

“We believe strongly that increasing self esteem and having a stronger base will help them in future years,” Zwart said.

Both leaders highlighted the strides the program has already made in a short amount of time.

“SWSG has made such an impact on certain elementary school campuses that parents are calling in to find out why their daughters are not a part of the program,” Zwart said.

“I recently received an e-mail from a parent [of a girl in last year’s program] who was unsure about the program and whether it was a good idea for her daughter,” DeForest said. “This summer, I took her daughter to a press conference for Senator [Arlen] Specter [R–Pa.]. It made such an impact on the little girl and the mother that the mother wanted to let me know how much the girl had changed throughout the year.”

Though, like most programs, Strong Women, Strong Girls does encounter an obstacle that is familiar to many other involved students at Carnegie Mellon.

“As a Carnegie Mellon student, you are always busy,” Zwart said. “It is hard to find a person who will be committed and consistent. Four to five hours doesn’t seem a lot, but to consistently do it is the hardest thing. You aren’t hurting our feelings when you don’t show up, you are hurting the girls.”

Strong Women, Strong Girls not only empowers elementary school girls, but their college-age mentors as well.

“We each get older members to mentor us, and that was one of the best aspects of the program,” Ridguard said.

The program model relies on “mutual cycles of empowerment. We are also growing ourselves as leaders,” Zwart said.

“To achieve this, the girls who participate in the program at a college level even have their own mentors that are businesswomen who are willing to give their time to mentor us and help us.”

All women who become mentors to the college community have been through leadership training themselves and have been specially selected for the program.

As they enter their second year, Zwart and DeForest remain mindful of the program’s original mission — to empower girls in the community who might not otherwise get the chance to fully reach their potential.

“To tell a girl that she is special is just words. But to take an avid interest in them and on a weekly basis to look into what she is doing and what interests her is profound,” DeForest said.