July 3, 2012 | Education
Women of Tomorrow: The Power of Mentorship
By Anna Louie Sussman
For Jennifer Valoppi, necessity was the mother of invention. A firm believer in mentorship – but also an Emmy Award-winning television reporter with a chaotic schedule – she needed a way to participate in the lives of young women while also keeping pace with the demands of her career. So fifteen years ago, she created Women of Tomorrow.
Drawing on her own experience throughout her career and her knowledge of psychology (her college major), she designed a program that built on dynamics she had both observed and researched. It would have both a mentoring component – women sharing their experience with those younger than them – and a group element, to foster a sense of community and support among the girls.
“The research was very clear that the real problem with inequality between men and women was not so much that men felt that women were inferior; the problem was that women who made it to the top liked being the only one there and didn’t do anything to help other women along. It’s something I actually ran into on a number of occasions in my professional life,” she said. “I always believed that women needed to support each other.”
She wasn’t alone in her diagnosis. When she pitched the idea over dinner to her first crop of potential mentors (“23 of the most accomplished, professional women in South Florida,” as she put it), everyone immediately was on board. Not only have they stayed on, but they have referred their friends. The South Florida program has expanded to 266 mentors for 1,800 students.
“People mentor the first time because I asked them to or because another mentor asked them to,” she said. “But you stay in the program, you come back, because it’s so much fun. It’s so rewarding. We all say that we get more out of this program than we give.”
The program targets at-risk young women who come from disadvantaged backgrounds. By combining monthly group mentoring sessions over three or four years with career-focused field trips and scholarship opportunities, the program builds their self-esteem and exposes them to a wide range of professional possibilities. Over 3,500 have graduated, and of those, nearly 1,200 girls have received scholarships totaling more than $3.2 million.
“The group mentoring gives the girls the opportunity to form a community with girls they don’t normally hang around with, who are trying to turn their lives around,” she said. “It gives them a support system. We know from research that kids are much more influenced by their peers than they are by their parents, or by adults in general.”
The participants have a 92 percent graduation rate, and over 90 percent of participants pursue higher education after completing the program, even though nearly half are the first in their families to finish high school. Ms. Valoppi said she’s seen the program’s effects ripple through the girls’ families and communities as well.
“One of the things that I’m always amazed by is not only the impact we have on the girls, but the unintended consequences that the program has on their family members, friends and kids who aren’t even in the program,” she said. “Showing them that women can be trusted, that there are people out there that care about them - these are lessons that they will carry through, not only the rest of their lives, but that they will share with everyone else.”
The program has been so successful that it recently received a grant from the Knight Foundation to expand into Detroit, where Ms. Valoppi grew up, and Philadelphia. .
One ninth-grade student who survived sexual assault during her initiation into a street gang credits Women of Tomorrow with turning her life around. In a speech she delivered in front of over 200 of Detroit’s leading entrepreneurs, she spoke of how she went from an F student who hated to school to having a 3.0 grade point average. With her experience coping with depression, brought on by the brutality she experienced at the hands of the gang, she intends to become a psychiatrist. She hopes to go to Florida State University on a scholarship from Women of Tomorrow.
“I feel like I can connect with others that are depressed,” she said in her speech. “I like hearing what others are going through and assuring them that someone is there that understands.”
Ms. Valoppi said her story is just an example of the countless girls she has seen take enormous strides.
“These kids really change their lives. They do it just with a little bit of help and guidance,” she said. “Part of the philosophy is just to expose them to the possibilities that are out there. When you realize what you can do and what you can be, you don’t want to stay in a disadvantaged situation. You want to get to this better place. If you give them something to aspire to and then you give them the tools to get there, I think very few kids won’t make the right decision.”
Anna Louie Sussman is a writer and editor for the Women in the World Foundation website, and a frequent contributor to major U.S. magazines and newspapers.