For some U.Va. students and alumnae, the Young Women Leaders Program (YWLP) has become more than a volunteer opportunity. Participating in the program has helped solidify career paths in the field of education, as well as created another sort of sorority with bonds made for life.

Ultimately, the program is “fostering competence, connections and autonomy” among everyone involved. The foundation of the program’s curriculum is in this motto.

When “fostering competence,” the curriculum focuses on leadership tools and practicing leadership skills through various projects. Such projects take form through technology, community service and nutrition. Technology is new content this year with an avenue via STEAM – science, technology, engineering, art and math. The addition of art to the traditional STEM is a way for Little Sisters to learn the other topics using visual and hands-on techniques, such as jewelry making.

“Fostering connections” is not limited to the developing the relationships between the Big Sisters and Little Sisters. YWLP connects girls and women across ages, town (with other local YWLP groups in different middle schools) and across the world (with YWLP national and international Sister Sites). Local middle schools with YWLP groups include Burley, Jouett, Sutherland and Buford. International Sister Sites include Nicaragua, Peru and Cameroon.

Lastly, “fostering autonomy” among program participants means helping girls and women to think on their own so they become better problem solvers and avoiders. Facilitators lead weekly group meetings with approximately eight Little Sister-Big Sister pairs in which they address “hot topics,” analyzing and discussing scenarios that lead to difficult decision-making regarding peers, school, family and more.

YWLP has provided and cultivated skills that U.Va. students and alumnae use frequently in their careers to be leaders in solving a variety of situations and problems.  The enthusiasm and commitment that they have for YWLP has inspired and fostered growth not only in Charlottesville area but has allowed for YWLP to establish Sister Sites both nationally and internationally.

Read more here about how to show your support for the Young Women Leaders Program.

The following stories are ways that YWLP has comparably “fostered competence, connections and autonomy” within U.Va. alumnae and graduating fourth-year students who have continued working with or on behalf of youth.

Building ‘competence’

YWLP Assistant Director Melissa Levy described how YWLP provides a standard curriculum for weekly, after-school meetings between Big Sisters, Little Sisters and facilitators at the different sites; however, facilitators accommodate to meet needs of particular students, much like they would do in a typical classroom setting.

“This knowledge of middle school students can help future teachers – who generally have far more students in their charge than do YWLP facilitators – better understand the challenges their students may face at home, with their peers and otherwise,” Levy said. “They develop group management skills, including flexibility in changing plans to meet immediate student needs.”

Tonyette White, Virginia College Advising Corps member and 2013 U.Va. graduate, recalled how her experience as a YWLP Big Sister and facilitator taught her how to approach sensitive situations.  White had also utilized the resources of the advising corps when she was in high school in Southern Virginia, identifying her adviser’s encouragement as the impetus for her application to U.Va.

“[…In YWLP,] I had to be aware of the climate of a situation, the young girls’ experience with the topic, and the willingness of the group to discuss certain issues,” White said. “From that assessment – I would either have to change my tone, my choice of words and body language as I led discussions as facilitator or engaged my Little Sister in conversation. The ability to assess situations quickly and efficiently has tremendously helped me as I talk to students I’ve never met before. I quickly have to assess their knowledge of college, their career goals and many outside situations that could be influencing them […]”

The unpredictable nature of working with children is what taught Paula Mitchell, a fourth-year religious studies student, how to be flexible and optimistic in the face of uncertainty and adversity. Mitchell was a YWLP Big Sister last year and a facilitator this year. Upon graduation, she will be moving to Mississippi to work for Teach for America in an elementary school.

“You never know what to expect from the Littles each week, and some groups would complain about being there and have bad attitudes,” Mitchell said. “In those rough weeks, I learned how to stay positive and persistent even when I didn’t feel appreciated. It was worth it because by the end of the year, the Littles made strong connections with their Bigs and were sad to say goodbye. I’m sure I’ll face similar situations as a teacher, and it will be important for me to remember that I’m making a difference even when I’m not getting immediate results.”

Creating ‘connections’

Alexandria Johnston

Alexandria Johnston holds a sign reading “… I am invested in my students’ SUCCESS!”

As a former YWLP Big Sister, facilitator and intern, 2013 U.Va. alumna Alexandria Johnston saw the impact that she and others could make in a variety of ways.

“I was deeply moved when I started seeing positive change in my young girls,” Johnston said. “I soon realized that YWLP was a getaway for these girls, and sometimes school in general was a way for them to escape the reality of their home life. I then made it my mission to help alleviate pain, stress and anxiety from these young  girls […].”

Johnston cherished her time with YWLP as she equally felt this was her escape from her everyday responsibilities in the U.Va. bubble. She saw this as an opportunity for her to connect with young girls and women on a personal level. Ultimately, “it then was revealed […] that the public school system was where [she] needed to be.” Johnston now works with the Virginia College Advising Corps in rural Pittsylvania County. These emotional connections are what continues to be a driving force in her work.

“It is a sincere delight to be able to provide trained assistance and guidance that may be a certain dollar value through another organization or group,” Johnston said. “These families have benefited greatly from my position […] This means a lot to me because I come from a low-income family […] It is my passion to work with low-income and underrepresented communities to help students and families realize their full potential.”

For 2012 U.Va. alumna Hannah Lambert, the connections that she made with people in YWLP are what she most fondly remembers. Lambert had a range of experiences through YWLP, starting as a Big Sister, continuing on to be a facilitator and eventually becoming a program coordinator for the YWLP Sister Site in Panama.

“In the end, the things I remember most about YWLP are the relationships that formed and what I learned from them,” Lambert said. “My Little, Amber, taught me just as much, if not more, about life as I taught her. She had an incredible social conscience–always eager to speak her mind about right vs. wrong. She was a great reminder about the importance of family and always demonstrated how to keep a positive attitude and to be grateful for what you have, rather than what you don’t. “

Encouraging ‘autonomy’

The structure of YWLP initially drew Lambert to becoming involved.

“YWLP caught my eye because it was more structured than other volunteer opportunities I had tried at U.Va. ,” Lambert said. “I knew I wanted to work with kids and I was impressed that YWLP offered a class that would help their volunteers be better prepared to do so […] Furthermore, YWLP provides such a great structure for meeting other Bigs. Because I had chosen not to rush, it was wonderful for me to have an opportunity outside of Greek life to interact and learn from so many positive and proactive women my own age […]”

YWLP Assistant Director Levy noted how the coursework’s heavy emphasis on reflection helps U.Va. students examine and improve their practice. Facilitators work as a team with the Big Sisters of their group, “preparing them well for collaborative work in schools.” They also experience working in a school setting from a perspective besides a student’s through interactions with school counselors and other staff.

Lambert credited the “limitless support” of her instructors, which included Levy and director Edith “Winx” Lawrence, because they served as her professional role models and helped her gain confidence in work settings that are not predominantly female.

Upon graduation, Lambert started work in the non-profit education sector as a site coordinator with Reading Partners, a literacy program for students in Title I public schools who were reading below grade level. She is now working as a teacher and tutor at the Boys’ Club of New York, and this month, Lambert will move to New Orleans to begin full-time teaching as a middle school special education English teacher.

“[…] My time in the program truly helped me foster a sense of self, independence and confidence in a supportive and open environment that has been instrumental in my current career,” Lambert said. “While I may not always know how to do something, I do not fear taking the risk to try thanks to YWLP. You learn to communicate and build relationships with […] so many different types of people when you are involved in the program, and to do so with an open mind and heart, which is a skill that is irreplaceable in my career and life today.”

White similarly remembered how YWLP inspired her to step outside of her comfort zone when mentoring her Little Sister or leading group discussions on deep topics as a facilitator. Now, as an adviser, she will “speak boldly in front of students, parents and community members […] And risk looking silly to persuade students of why education is important […] Each day, I am learning to be a bold leader and channel those qualities that were strengthened and discovered as I participated in YWLP.”

By Agnes Filipowski