Strong Mentors for the Young College Students Are Working with At- Risk Girls and, in Turn, Are Helped on Future Careers

By Gannon, Joyce | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), November 11, 2012 | Go to article overview

Strong Mentors for the Young College Students Are Working with At- Risk Girls and, in Turn, Are Helped on Future Careers


Gannon, Joyce, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


Faith Collins, 21, a senior at the University of Pittsburgh, was feeling deadline pressure as she scrambled to secure funding for a field trip for 145 elementary school girls. The trip to Pitt is meant to expose the girls, all from at-risk communities, to education and career options ranging from law and chemistry to the business of fashion.

As coordinator of the event scheduled for next Saturday, Ms. Collins had the itinerary set but she still needed to nail down donations to feed the girls and about 45 college-age women who, like Ms. Collins, serve as their mentors.

A nonprofit that facilitates the mentorship program, Strong Women, Strong Girls provided guidelines on how to plan the field trip, "but intentionally doesn't give us the money," said Ms. Collins, who has been involved with the organization since her freshman year.

A target goal of Strong Women, Strong Girls is to prepare the college volunteers for work challenges in the real world. "We have to raise our own funds," she said.

While the organization doesn't allocate dollars for projects like field trips, it does match the college-age mentors with female mentors in the workforce who coach them about careers and issues they encounter.

So in the midst of soliciting lunch donations, Ms. Collins scheduled dinner with her mentor, Taylor Pennels, a pharmaceutical sales manager with Sanofi-Aventis Biosurgery.

"It will be good to talk about what I'm doing with the field trip, what I have planned and to not feel so overwhelmed," said Ms. Collins, who typically chats with Ms. Pennels every two weeks over a meal in Oakland.

As a college volunteer with Strong Women, Strong Girls, Ms. Collins benefits from both sides of the program: She mentors girls who are 8 to 11 years old and in turn is coached by a young professional.

"It's good to have a positive role model who isn't your mom. It's nice to see how well she's done and ask her what she's had to go through and what it's like to work with her peers," Ms. Collins said.

Pittsburgh is one of only three cities where Strong Women, Strong Girls operates. The organization is based in Boston, where it was founded in 2000 as a student group at Harvard University; it also has programs in Miami.

It launched here in 2007 with a student chapter at Carnegie Mellon University and now includes the program office based in the Hill District, and chapters at CMU, Pitt, Point Park University, Carlow University and Duquesne University.

In this region, about 150 college women currently mentor 425 girls at 26 after-school programs in the city of Pittsburgh, Homestead, Wilkinsburg and in the Sto-Rox School District, said Amy Parker, executive director of Strong Women, Strong Girls in Pittsburgh.

On the other end of the program, about 40 young professional women provide coaching to the college students. And in yet another component introduced in Pittsburgh last year, women who have already ascended the corporate ladder to high-ranking positions will share leadership pointers with young working professionals.

"We are a multigenerational mentoring program," Ms. Parker said.

At the after-school programs, two or three college students meet weekly with groups of 10 to 12 girls for 90 minutes. They oversee activities designed to promote girls' self-confidence and provide lessons in perseverance and how to overcome obstacles.

In one session, for instance, the girls read a short biography of Cynthia Breazeal, a pioneering robotics researcher based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Then the girls constructed their own robots and recorded their thoughts and questions in journals.

"We have found the elementary girls getting increased self- esteem and aspirations for college and community service. They observe the college women, and sometimes it's the first time they've met someone who has gone to college. ... It gives them a frame of reference," Ms. Parker said. …

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