Lead By Example

Julie Ciotola

Instilling confidence in young adults presents different challenges based on an individual’s identities. Societal pressures and stereotypes can create a burden that discourages originality.  The Young Women Leaders Program (YWLP) at Ohio University seeks to overcome such challenges by pairing college students with young girls in hopes of building supportive and empowering relationships that foster leadership. 


“We want the women who come into our program to leave [with more confidence] than they had coming in and to think about how they can make their group and culture healthier,” Geneva Murray, director of the OHIO Women’s Center, says. “It’s all about being healthy with each other.”


The YWLP began in 1997 at the University of Virginia with the goal of teaching young girls how to have confidence, open communication and healthy relationships. Since its establishment, several institutions have formed sister sites, including Auburn University. In 2009, the program went global when chapters were established in Cameroon and Nicaragua. 


OU established a sister site in spring 2014. The program requires mentors to enroll in a class, taught by Murray, that focuses on issues facing young girls and how to combat those problems.


Mentors are paired with a seventh- or eighth-grade girl from Athens Middle School, and the duo meets once a week for group activities. Mentors are also expected to meet with their mentees outside of the scheduled time in hopes of forming a personal connection, Murray says. The program size varies each semester, and for the 2018 spring semester, eight mentors are enrolled.  


Though Ohio University’s YWLP was inspired by the University of Virginia’s program, it has been restructured since its establishment.


“Over the last summer we completely revamped the program,” Murray says. “We still use parts from the [University of Virginia], but we also have really pushed ourselves to think more in terms of a hands-on, arts-based practice for some of the programs because we know that is really effective for kids this age.”


During the weekly meetings, mentors and mentees engage in meaningful discussion and activities. The activities challenge the mentees to critically think about media messages and reflect on their personal relationships, Murray says.


Currently, the YWLP is partnering with the Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine to work on a project called Photo Voice. The goal of the project is to understand how gender is perceived by young girls and what factors influence this notion.  


“We give the kids disposable cameras and we tell them a question that we want them to take pictures of to answer for us,” Murray says. “The question we are looking at for this semester was ‘What does it mean to be a girl?’ They were asked to take pictures of objects or lighting or rooms or whatever they could come up with. They are going to write captions to help us understand what it means to be a girl.”


Other activities include ‘Find the Photoshop,’ where mentees look at images of popular media and pinpoint where they have been edited. Mentees and mentors also selected songs with negative messages about women and worked together to rewrite lyrics with an empowering meaning.


Olivia Cobb, a senior studying English, participated in the YWLP as a mentor last spring and now works alongside Murray as a leader of the program. Olivia says the purpose of the weekly activities is to create an environment conducive to self-reflection and candid communication.


Though each mentee faces different challenges, Olivia says finding confidence is universally difficult. 


“I think the biggest problem is learning to trust their own voice, that what they have to say is important and that they can say it loudly,” Olivia says.


Leigh Ferrero, a YWLP mentor and senior studying psychology, says another problem young girls face is practicing healthy communication strategies.


“The program is great for dealing with conflict,” Ferrero says. “We did one specific thing dealing with mindfulness. We talked about a time when you acted out without thinking about what you were doing, and what would have happened if you would have just stopped and chilled for a minute.”


Though mentors are expected to act as role models toward mentees, the program is a mutually beneficial experience, Olivia says. Working with young girls who are learning about their identity and how to express themselves often provokes personal contemplation. 


“There’s a lot of self-reflection built into the course,” Olivia says. “You’re working with these fantastic humans who are going through it, and having that back and forth and being open to someone else’s experience is a really strong empathy builder. It really challenged me to be respectful instead of knowing.”


Ky Cobb, a junior studying journalism, is currently a mentor in the program and says the YWLP provides a different perspective about popular culture and the issues young girls face.

Both Ky and Ferrero identify as nonbinary, meaning they reject the idea that gender is exclusively male and female. Despite the program being focused toward young women, both mentors say they do not feel excluded.

“There hasn’t been anything in particular that makes me feel like anything different than any other mentor,” Ferrero says.  

Ky, who uses they/them pronouns, says encouraging mentees to challenge gender norms is an important part of the program. 

“We try to just use gender inclusive language and introduce them to the idea that you don’t have to fit into a certain gendered box,” Ky says.

Seeing the mentees openly discuss personal topics gives them a renewed sense of hope in the future.


“We have a lot of minds that are coming up and it almost seems like all of these problems we have might not seem too terrible if our generation can work with the next generation,” Ky says.


Ky also believes that the program would have been beneficial for them as a middle schooler.


“It would have been so nice to learn about the pressures society puts on young women and how to counteract those and how to not let them affect you into high school as you’re growing,” Ky says.