Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Strong Women? And What of Strong Men?

Strong Women, Strong Girls program grows at Northeastern


(photo by By Kristina Finn)

Northeastern University student Jennifer Glynn has seen her university chapter of Strong Women Strong Girls mushroom in four years -- from 21 mentors at five program sites, to 60 mentors at 14 sites.

“I think the types of women that are attracted to joining this program are just unreal,” said Glynn, from Wappingers Falls, NY. “I mean so incredibly talented, they inspire me to do more and be more.”

The Strong Women Strong Girls program matches college-age mentors with groups of girls, ages 7 to 10, from city elementary schools. The program, which meets on a weekly basis, helps at-risk youth develop skills to succeed.

But Glynn and other volunteers say the interactions are as beneficial to them as to those they serve. They say the program has attracted more mentors in recent years because of the rewards it offers college students looking to make a real-world difference in the lives of young girls.

Glynn, 22, said she enjoys being able to instill confidence in girls who face obstacles, both internal and external. She recalled reuniting at the annual SWSG fieldtrip with one student she had met in the program when the girl was 7 years old. She remembered the girl being “always on a sugar rush” and not being able to hold a conversation with her.

“When I saw her at the fieldtrip last year, she was a completely different child,” Glynn explained. The once out-of-control girl was now helping her peers to keep their focus and behave well.

“It was just amazing to see how much she had matured and how she had really come into her own as someone that the girls looked up to,” Glynn said.

Glynn said the girls are offered strong female role models through both the mentors and successful women they learn about, in various fields. For instance, to boost confidence in the girls as strong competitors, they are told about Shree Bose, a Texas high school student who recently was named the grand prize winner of the Google Science Fair for work in cancer research. Her hard work and dedication were balanced by a friendly disposition with her competitors, the SWSG mentors explained.

“We were able to explain to the girls how these things were really unique and would help them find themselves,” said Glynn.

SWSG was founded in 2000 by Lindsay Hyde, then a student at Harvard University. The program stemmed from a project Hyde did for school and was first established in the Boston area. The program thrived and was later replicated in Pittsburgh, PA, and South Florida.

When the program started in Boston, there were only two sites and six volunteer staff. Now, there are 55 sites and 155 volunteer mentors in the Boston area.

This year, Hyde is launching an experiment with the Northeastern University chapter to expand the number of mentors and program sites. Usually, colleges that participate produce 20 to 30 mentors. But Hyde hopes to increase that to 50 to 75 at every college involved. The pilot expansion at Northeastern will help Hyde determine whether the increase is beneficial or too massive an undertaking.

“I have to say it’s been really fantastic (so far),” Hyde said.

SWSG consults with school counselors, social workers and teachers to decide which youth would benefit from the program, Hyde said. Each meeting begins with the girls sharing events from their week with the group. They are able to vent, get advice or share their achievements.

Because the program is gender specific, Glynn sees a strong sense of community develop among the girls. They learn about different cultures, neighborhoods, schools and backgrounds, she said.

At a recent meeting at the Yawkey Boys and Girls Club in Roxbury, staffed by three mentors, seven elementary school girls cheered as their peers competed in a rock, paper, scissors tournament. The tournament was intended as a way to teach the girls how to compete. That lesson is part of a research-based curriculum offered to the girls, who participate in the program for 90 minutes a week during the school year, said Hyde.

After the activities concluded, the girls were handed personal journals and asked to reflect on what they had learned. The mentors helped them to develop a story that used the characteristics they had learned about that day. As the meeting ended, the girls gathered to recite the closing cheer:

“I am strong! I am proud! I’m not afraid to shout out loud! Strong Women Strong Girls, Strong Women Strong Girls, Strong Women Strong Girls!”

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