As a 7th-grader at Salt Lake City's Bryant Middle School, Tamara Sanchez-Fletes knew she wanted to go to college. But a mentoring program called Go Girlz reinforced that goal by providing a broader network of women and girls for her to look up to.
"I personally was very shy," Sanchez-Fletes said. "If I didn't have Go Girlz, I would have just gone through school keeping to myself. The program opened up doors for me."
Anyone who has had a mentor knows they can encourage and inspire in ways that parents often can't. And in a state where fewer women graduate from college than the national average and where they earn 69 percent of what their male counterparts do, researchers are looking to mentoring to help narrow those gaps.
The Go Girlz and Go U mentoring programs sponsored by the University of Utah teach middle school students valuable lessons about leadership, networking, communication and respect in addition to offering academic support, said Jenny Netto of the university's Women's Resource Center.
"A lot of college access programs focus on academics, but for many girls from low socioeconomic circumstances, that's not a cultural expectation," Netto said. "We wanted to find a way to address the reasons why girls weren't reaching higher education."
Since 2004, Go Girlz has hosted mentoring and after-school activities for dozens of girls three times a week at Bryant as well as at East High School in the Salt Lake City School District. This kind of hands-on guidance can be especially important for girls in their early teen years, said Edith "Winx" Lawrence, a professor at the University of Virginia.
She noticed that her own daughters had tremendous confidence in elementary school. "But when they got to middle school,'' she said, ``they started shaking at the knees."
So Lawrence, who will be the keynote speaker at this year's Women's Week at the University of Utah, co-founded the Young Women Leaders Program (YWLP), which matches up UVA college women mentors with girls at surrounding middle schools. They talk with, listen to and support each other.
"(Both teen girls and college women) almost live in a generational ghetto, spending most of their time with peers," she said. "This program allows some cross-fertilization across various age groups and that's really useful."
A three-year YWLP study showed 70 percent of the middle school girls surveyed said their mentor relationship gave them a better appreciation of differences in others and improved their leadership skills; 75 percent credited their mentor with changing the way they thought about the future and helping them deal with problems.
Lawrence said mentors can help young people make connections with those outside their culture and peer group as well as promote personal ambition and boost self-esteem.
"Middle school is a time when it's very hard for (girls) to feel comfortable in their own skin," Lawrence said. "We really stress being respectful of others and we see growth in this area."
Having women role models and enhancing communication skills can mean better, more successful relationships both in and out of the workplace, said Kim Hackford-Peer, assistant professor of gender studies at the University of Utah.
"Mentors... provided a really important support network in my life, encouraging me and believing in me. They were also the people I could call on to ask questions," she said. "Mentors become the people we ask for help with our resumes and introduce us to people. They may not necessarily be in the field we're going into, but maybe they know people who are in those fields."
And the benefits run both ways. Hackford-Peer said college student mentors become more aware of their responsibility to live up to the expectations of their new young friends.
"I've had (mentors) come into my office and they'll say, 'The middle schoolers are saying, 'When I start going to college like you,'" Hackford-Peer said. "It's sort of like, yeah, I better do my homework. It's a different kind of accountability."
Now a sophomore at the University of Utah, Sanchez-Fletes is giving back to Go Girlz by mentoring at Bryant Middle School.
"It's actually a great experience," she said. "Knowing that I get to do what others have done for me is really rewarding."
University of Utah Women's Week Keynote
Dr. Edith "Winx" Lawrence presents the keynote address, "It Opened My Eyes," on Thursday from noon to 1 p.m. in the University of Utah Student Union, Saltair Room. Find other Women's Week events at diversity.utah.edu.