Mentors & Proteges
Mentors and protégés were meeting for the first time. There we were: young and old, or, shall we say, mature: psychologists and early childhood post docs; business owners, university professors, engineers from Lexmark, and U.K. graduate studentswe all stood near the door of the airless room in Donovan Hall, watching as the gaggle of girls arrive and shed backpacks, notebooks, sodas and the occasional stuffed animal, falling to the floor in piles across the room. The younger mentorsgraduate students and post docs mostlylooked confident and cool, in spite of the heat.
This was day three of the University of Kentuckys Girls in Science/Girls in Research (GIS/GIR) program for 60 girls from twenty-one Eastern Kentucky counties.
The girls, all fifth, sixth and soon-to-be seventh graders, had arrived on Sunday, and, with their parents and teachers, participated in the orientation and team building led by a very diverse staff with rather exotic backgrounds:
Caroline Reid, project director, born and raised in Northern Ireland, arrived at the University of Kentucky via Israel, where she worked as an au pair and picked grapefruit to make ends meet; then South Africa, working for an insurance company; and finally, from Berea where she completed her undergraduate work. In 1999, she enrolled in the University of Kentuckys School of Social Work to pursue a masters degree and took the position starting up the GIS/GIR program under UK professor, Dr. Carl Leukefeld.
Sondra Floyd, project coordinator, moved to Lexington from Jackson, Mississippi, when her husband was accepted into the U.K. doctoral program in philosophy
Sophie Munyao, a program assistant, hails from Kenya and came to U.K. to study early childhood.
In addition to these cultures, there are mentors from India, Nigeria, China and Russia. This exposure to extraordinarily different cultures, Reid reports, is one of the experiences the girls enjoy the most.
"My mentor helped me write my name in Chinese," one girl exclaimed!
Holding out her hand to shake, she looked at me directly and said, "Pleased to meetcha, Miss Holloway." I was nervous. I had been a mentor to women before, and even had a goddaughter, now sixteen, with whom I was still involved, but Haley was young and I was certainly older and feeling it, when faced with all the energetic youthfulness in the room.
There were awkward moments in our first meeting. Like when she asked about my favorite movies and, of course, hadnt heard of any of them. How could she? They were all from the 50s and 60s. She was born in 1992. I asked about her favorite television shows. They were all cartoons Id never heard of. I asked if she knew what kind of career she wanted. Her exasperated "do I have to know everything now?" made it clear she would explore many options before making her decision. At one point, she asked if I were related to some Holloways she knew in Eastern Kentucky. I told her it was unlikely, since Holloway was the name of my former husband and not my family name. She paused, looked me directly in the eyes, and said, "so, youre a divorced woman?" Well, yes. I am. And, I havent felt the need to explain this part of my life for many, many years. Much to my relief, she didnt pursue the issue.
I was one of twenty mentors for the Girls in Research program. On another part of the campus, forty girls and their mentors were meeting and talking about the GIS program.
I had little time to think about it, as the Mentor Night for Girls in Science/Girls in Research program was to begin that very evening.
Haley and I sat down to get acquainted while the GIS/GIR staff handed out clay pots and put gobs of paint colors onto a paper plate. This was scheduled as "Pots on Fire Night." We had an activity to work on together, as well as a "Getting to Know You" page of suggested questions, as a focus for our getting to know each other. As we dipped our brushes into the primary colors and studied what we wanted to paint, I asked Haley about school. "I love school," she said. "School lets me learn things and also allows me to see my friends. I think of school like an open door of knowledge, and, right now, my goal is to walk through that door." Yes, she actually said these words. "Lucky me," I thought. "Either this kid is really smart, or else shes good at faking it: you know, giving adults what they want to hear." As I soon discovered, Haley wasnt faking anything. She meant every word she said and more.
When asked about boys, Haley D. said, "theyre okay but theyre so loud!" Shell be going into the sixth grade in the fall and hasnt yet fallen under their spell.
"My favorite subjects?" she asked. "Math and science." Why? "Because I love to figure things out. Like yesterday, we got to make DNA and look at animal and plant cells under the microscope and understand about the parts of the body that are affected by smoking. Did you know that animal and plant cells are different?"
Well, no, I didnt and it hadnt occurred to me to ask. Her least favorite subject? "History, because theres so much thats happened before I was born and you have to memorize all those dates!"
Haley and I painted and talked to each other and to the other "pairs" at our table for nearly two hours. A smiley-faced cloud surrounded by a strong rainbow and bright, impressionistic flowers covered Haleys pot. Mine was layered with zigzags, triangles and ovalsreflecting my more linear state of mind perhaps. I had learned a lot about Haley that evening: that her sense of adventure was real and even carried over into her request to go for Thai food when we met later in the week. "Ive heard about it but we dont have a Thai restaurant in Prestonsburg where we shop, so Id like to try it!"
She insisted on showing me her college dorm room before I left, and, as she used the key hanging from her neck to unlock the door, she explained that her roommate was a "slob" while she was very organized. She was: her bed was neatly covered with a bright, flowered comforter; clothes hung in the space that passes for a closet in most dorm rooms; and her pencils and paper were lined up carefully on the bare desk. In contrast, we had to step over her roommates clothes and various candy and chip wrappers scattered about. I could see that Haley was a very determined young girl. In the spirit of "Getting to Know You," I asked what her faults might be and whether there were things about herself she didnt like. She thought for a few moments, then said, "I cant think of anything. I guess I really like myself."
The evening ended with us exchanging pots (her idea) and confirming that wed have lunch at the Bangkok House on Thursday.
On Thursday, Haley and I went for Thai food. She walked around looking at the pictures of Thailand and studied the menu. "Anything with noodles," she exclaimed. I cautioned her about the spiciness of Thai food. "No problem," she said. "If its spicy and different, Im going to like it." So we ordered noodles with shrimp, Bangkok chicken with rice, and pot stickers
and Haley demonstrated a very healthy appetite, as well as some interest in using the chop sticks.
I called Caroline after the week ended and asked what she saw in the future for GIS/GIR. "I dream someday of offering this program to all public schools across Kentucky," she said. "The program keeps girls dreams alive, and what more could we ask for?"
Since Haley had told me she was an A+ student, I asked how she thought a mentor could be useful to her. Without hesitating, she said, "I like meeting all kinds of people and doing different things. Theres so much to learn." The least I can do as her mentor is to fan this flame of adventure and curiosity over the coming years. And Im certain it will expand my own horizons as well.
Janet Holloway is the Executive Director and co-founder of Women Leading Kentucky, created to promote business and leadership opportunities for women and girls. n
About the Program
Started in 1999 by Dr. Carl Leukefeld, Chair of U.K.s Department of Behavioral Sciences and Director of the Center on Drug and Alcohol Research, Dr. Leukefeld applied for and secured funding from the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Health to implement the program, which has, by now, involved hundreds of Eastern Kentucky girls, their teachers and schools.
Asked why he decided to seek this funding, Dr. Leukefeld responded, "Science and technology are essential components for a better economic future in rural areas. This speaks to the need to motivate our rural girls to consider career paths that they may not have even imagined."
The GIS/GIR goals are lofty: (1)to increase the scientific, technological and research knowledge of selected girls in rural southeastern Kentucky; (2)to train parents and middle school teachers on gender equity and strategies to increase selected girls participation in science, math, engineering, technology, and research; and (3)to enhance science education at the middle school level.
Research has shown that women are a definite minority in the fields of science, engineering and computer science. According to the NSF, while 46 percent of the U.S. labor force are women, only 22 percent of the scientists and engineers were female in 1995. It also reports that women leave science and engineering careers twice as frequently as men, citing. subtle and overt obstacles to advancement, according to The National Research Council and Catalyst, a national research organization focusing on women. The NRC interviews with 30 leading women scientists revealed that more than half were given little or no information about the job market for industrial science careers and that women do face organizational barriers to their advancement such as exclusion from informal networks, stereotypes and preconceptions, style differences, risk-averse supervisors and work/life balance. More than 90 percent reported that they had to struggle against the perception that science was a male pursuit.
Research on mentoring demonstrates that participants in mentoring programsno matter which genderincrease their academic performance (Cragar, 1994). n
How I Got Involved
The first e-mail I had received from the University of Kentucky about the GIS/GIR program had read: "Can you help us? Were in need of mentors for a GIS/GIR program starting in two weeks on the university campus." Simple request; easy enough to respond to. I immediately sent an e-mail blast to a few hundred women on my distribution list for Women Leading Kentucky. These are women who want to be mentors and who participate in programs provided by Women Leading Kentucky, a non-profit that I co-founded with several other women and men five years ago to promote business and leadership opportunities for women and girls. I serve as the Executive Director and manage communications, among other things. "This fits with our mission," I thought, " Lets see what happens." I learned later that the e-mail prompted a huge response from Central Kentucky women to the programs organizers.
A few days later, I received a very nice thank you from Caroline Reid, with a reference to online resources and information. My curiosity got the better of me. Not only did I click on, I had signed on immediately.
The next letter read, "Dear Mentor: We are excited that you have agreed to join us this summer.
" What was I thinking? Signing up to mentor an unknown, soon-to-be twelve year old from Salyersville, Kentucky? This was my break time. Id just finished producing a leadership conference for more than 350 women and was looking forward to my first summer off in more than 30 years. I planned to practice loafing, which I dont do well; improve my Spanish by traveling; and get focused on the book Ive been trying to write for most of my life.
The instructions continued: "First, I would like you to think about when you were in 5th, 6th and 7th grades. Who did you look up to? Who were your role models, your heroes?"
My first thought was of Elvis, but we know what kind of hero he turned out to be. Then I thought of my sixth-grade teacher, Mr. Anderson, but the memory was vague and focused on the whispers in the girls bathroom about his dating the mother of one of the other girls in class. Not really a hero. Other than my Granny Bill, I couldnt bring up an image of anyone else I admired at that age.
I couldnt even remember myself in the fifth grade: Where did we live? Which parent did I live with at that time? Who was my 5th grade teacher? Who were my friends? Why was this so hard? n
(Some of the following organizations have formal mentoring programs; others are less structured or are online resources. This list is not comprehensive.)