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Five years later, a mentor reflects on lessons learned from SWSG

Posted by Strong Women Strong Girls Dec 12, 2010 ,

Has it really been five years since I was an SWSG mentor?  Half a decade since I wore a mint green shirt on weekly treks to Jackson-Mann Elementary and attended board meetings in Quincy Dining Hall at Harvard?

SWSG was a vital part of my college experience.  As an alumna, I appreciate even more how deeply its influence runs.  SWSG’s mission centers on creating cycles of mutual empowerment for women and girls: it’s little surprise then that the lessons meant for our mentees continue to inspire me today.

Here’s my starter list of what mentoring with SWSG impressed upon me:

1. Maintain, always, a sense of wonder and possibility:  I remember the moment an SWSG third-grader, upon reading a lesson on Joan of Arc leading the all-male French army, decided that it was okay to be the only girl on her softball team.  Majoring in literature and philosophy, I’ve always felt strongly about the power of stories, their ability to guide us to think in terms of possibilities and alternative realities.  As we mentors planned college campus trips and career days for our girls or wrote to them in journals, I hope we were able to encourage an ongoing search for role models (in likely and unlikely places), to whet a hunger for new ideas and experiences, and to cultivate that same spirit of openness in ourselves as we launched our post-college plans.

2. Contribute what you can now while developing skills to contribute more later: Just as they do now, five years ago each SWSG group, during the spring, designed and managed a local service project, such as sweeping the streets outside a community center or designing murals to freshen school hallways.  This project was the culmination of a year-long curriculum focusing on individual skills (for example, we sharpened brainstorming techniques and public-speaking abilities through a debate on whether the school should adopt mandatory uniforms).  Through the service project, our girls were expected to serve their communities in whatever capacity they could, to value their work as a meaningful contribution, and to continually develop their skills for greater impact next time around.  Five years later, I try to hold myself to that same standard: committing to excellence in my current work, not deferring action unnecessarily, but thinking critically at the same time about what it would take to do more and do better.

3. Work to bring out the best in your teammates and your team: We began each mentoring session with a team-building exercise to impress upon the girls what they could accomplish if they learned to work constructively together, even when working together might be trying.  (We also stressed that, at an age when thoughtless remarks can inflict disproportionate damage, no mentee should tolerate any unkindness.)  As a volunteer program, SWSG was equally dedicated to bringing out the best in each mentor.  We invested significantly in volunteer development and appreciation. Though non-profits understandably feel an impulse to focus each effort on direct services, SWSG maintained that a volunteer force in which each member feels valued and empowered was critical to driving impact.  This focus on volunteers fueled Sunday meeting agenda items dedicated to toasting mentor successes, chapter leaders scheduling valuable one-on-one check-in time with each mentor, and co-mentors cheering from the front rows of each other’s events.   This culture, in turn, led to mentors volunteering their early Saturday mornings and their roommates’ services to making events like Health & Sports Day, Arts Day, and other mentee outings a success.

As I’ve transitioned from grad school to work in the private, public, and social sectors, I’ve carried with me these lessons learned from SWSG mentors, mentees, and alums. (In fact, I find they go particularly well with a certain mint green shirt I also keep close at hand.)

By Shreya Vora, SWSG Harvard Alumna

Thanks to Lindsay Hyde for finding this vintage picture of Shreya and her girls!

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