From organizing donated school supplies at Families Moving Forward (FMF) during P-Change, to gathering feedback during the final mentorship group meeting at Brogden Middle School (BMS), I have continuously been challenged to “think and do” over the course of the year. Aiming to strengthen, recognize, and connect women within the Duke and greater Durham community, I organized mentorship programs for young women at different public middle schools and local organizations. The programs were the most well-received at FMF and BMS.
In establishing these mentorship programs, I thought that introducing eighth-graders to accomplished women in their community would encourage them to pursue their own career goals and continue to make progress in breaking gendered barriers. Since eighth-grade occurs during a time in which many girls begin to set goals and experience gender-related obstacles, I believed that eighth-graders would particularly benefit from the program. Although all women will be confronted with sexism, women of different races, socioeconomic statuses, and other identity markers, each have a unique experience confronting gender discrimination. Throughout my life, I have been fortunate to be surrounded by many remarkable women who have encouraged me to pursue my personal and professional goals. During my time as a Resident Assistant and just my life-long position as an older sister, I constantly recognized that the guidance and support of an older woman can provide a younger woman with a sense of security, comfort, and confidence. Beyond my own experience, however, the value of mentorship is backed by methodological studies and bolstered by personal antidotes of successful women.
The girls residing at FMF, however, were all in elementary school, and I soon learned that this age group lacked the patience for the format of listening to women speakers. Instead, group meetings consisted of arts and crafts projects, science experiments, and educational activities about inspirational women of color, such as Sonia Sotomayor and Michelle Obama. Although the group at FMF was unable to meet during the spring, due to staffing constraints, I was able to continue my relationship with the girls whom I had met in a different capacity – as a Girl Scout troop leader for Troop 1243. The troop consisted of Daisies, Juniors, and Brownies, who were currently residing or who had previously stayed at FMF. With the resources provided by Girl Scouts, we were able to go on several outings, such as a service project during which we delivered Easter baskets to residents of a retirement community. I greatly enjoyed supervising the troop, watching friendships develop, and observing the rises in confidence with each badge earned.
The vision I had for my project was best realized during the mentorship program I established at BMS. I was extremely grateful for the tremendous support I received from the many extraordinary women who were eager to serve as mentors for the delightful and inquisitive group of eighth-grade girls at BMS. I think that through the examples set by the mentors, the mentees realized that they too could achieve goals that were beyond traditional gendered boundaries. While the group was set to meet bi-weekly, after just a few meetings, the girls requested that we meet every week. Since the participants in the initial cohort invited their peers to join as the year progressed, I think that they greatly enjoyed belonging to the group and attending the meetings.
From the feedback I gathered from the girls, the introduction to so many diverse, interesting, and accomplished women was the greatest asset of the program. The length of the meeting was the greatest drawback. In selecting the mentors, I reached out to women who I had met through internships, events at Duke, or who were “friends of friends”, with careers mirroring the girls’ own interests. Since the group was comprised of black and Latina young women, I thought that the girls would be able to better connect with mentors who were also women of color. Our featured women hailed from professions in a wide-range of fields. Indeed, small business owners, two prosecutors, and even an actress, came and spoke with the group. Despite the differences in their backgrounds and careers, there were common themes in the stories the mentors shared and the advice that they offered. Since the meetings occurred during lunch, they were often abbreviated and meeting outside of the school day proved to be difficult. Overall,I think that my project reified the importance and power of women supporting each other, especially as the mentorship meetings occurred during a time in which women collectively experienced much vulnerability.
I also had the opportunity to interview many of the women who came to speak for the group and archive their oral histories at the Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s Culture and History at the Rubenstein library. With each interview, I learned that the questions posed by the interviewer were just as influential in shaping the story that gets told as do the responses given by the interviewee. I was taken aback by the incredible stories of success and struggles to overcome adversity that women such as Dr. Brenda Armstrong, the second African American woman in the United States to become a board-certified pediatric cardiologist, and Durham Mayor Pro Tem Jillian Johnson shared with me. I feel extremely fortunate to have had the opportunity to interview these women and to add them to my own circle of mentors.
In addition to organizing mentorship programs, I think that my writing and interdisciplinary thinking skillsets greatly improved. My mentor at Kenan was incredibly supportive, offered creative ideas for group meetings, and provided helpful advice, particularly in regard to my writing. The weekly posts I wrote for Kenan Insiderwere instrumental for sharing developments made in my project and for reflecting upon issues with ethical implications. I am also extremely grateful for having been able to reap the educational benefits of working at an institution heavily involved with many departments across campus. My knowledge of issues concerning refugee and human rights greatly expanded as I participated in MASTERY and attended several human rights lectures. Moreover, by attending various seminars, events, and the annual film series, I learned about issues with ethical implications in greater depth, such as the politics surrounding the removal of confederate monuments, the human rights crisis happening at the border, and the revolutionary work of many civil rights leaders.
I think that the most valuable takeaways of my experience as the Bear fellow were the lessons I learned from those who I met. In particular, the strength, resilience, and optimism of the young women I worked with was truly inspiring. Despite having to share a single room with five family members, or assimilate to an entirely new culture after fleeing one’s home, each young woman managed to maintain a positive outlook while ambitiously pursuing her endeavors. While I am sad to be leaving Durham and the Kenan fam, I feel even more confident entering law school this fall and am eager to advocate on behalf of women, refugees, and other marginalized individuals facing injustice.