Class assignment flourishes as mentoring program for local girls
Jennifer Greenstein Altmann
Princeton NJ -- It's a Saturday morning, and four Princeton students sitting around a table at Frist Campus Center are being peppered with questions from a group of high school girls. Today's topic is getting ready for college.
"Do they look at the number of AP and honors classes you take?" asked 15-year-old Fatima Montaño.
"Did you have a college you really had your heart set on?" asked Anaiya Fitzgerald, 16.
The gathering is the fourth session of the Princeton Girls Leadership Summit, a new program for high school-age daughters of Princeton employees. The program was developed by five Princeton students who wanted to create a way for girls to interact with University students and professors while developing leadership skills.
The project grew out of a class assignment in the freshman seminar taught by Patricia Fernandez-Kelly, a lecturer in sociology, that Allison Arensman, Maureen Monagle and Adrienne Hadley took last year. (Jessica Kantor '04 and Lauren Kapsky '05 joined them this year to help run the program.) The students had to develop a plan for a community-based project; they came up with an outline for a mentoring program involving college women and high school girls.
"We wanted to address the fact that girls, particularly minorities or people of lower socioeconomic backgrounds, tend to fall behind right at the end of middle school," Arensman said. "We decided to design a project to give girls opportunities to take the lead or learn how to be team players in leadership-type activities."
After finishing the class assignment, the students decided to try to make the program a reality. They met with Janet Dickerson, vice president for campus life, who suggested they talk to someone in the Office of Human Resources, which ended up giving them a grant to fund the program. The Center for Community Service, the Undergraduate Student Government's Projects Board and the Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Students also are sponsors.
The 17 girls in the program this year come from 16 schools. They are the daughters of Princeton employees who work in all parts of the University, including human resources, dining services and information technology, as well as on the faculty.
The first few sessions have focused on introducing the students to the Princeton campus, meeting with professors and talking about selecting colleges that are right for them. Later sessions will address how the girls can spearhead community projects.
"We're not trying to get them to go to Princeton," Arensman said. "We're trying to get them to know that they're capable of going to college, and that college can put them in a position to do pretty much anything they want to in life."
Questions about sports and clubs
During the March session, Princeton freshman Lauren Kapsky and several of the girls sat in a circle on the lawn behind Frist in the balmy pre-spring weather to talk about the importance of non-academic activities.
"Extracurriculars show what you have a passion about," said Kapsky, who urged the girls not to be shy about joining clubs or teams. "Who cares if (the other kids) are seniors? It's great to go out on a limb and test the waters, even if you're afraid to get up and speak."
Ruth Morrow, who goes to Princeton High School, said she was thinking about running for president of the theater club but worried that if she won the position, she wouldn't have time for any other activities.
Kapsky explained that she narrowed down her extracurricular activities: "My freshman year I played three sports; my sophomore year I didn't play any." She decided to devote herself to one activity, Key Club International, in high school. "What helped me was sitting down with my parents and talking to them," she said. "But make sure the decision comes from you."
She encouraged the girls to compete for leadership positions, telling them the experience will benefit them even if they aren't selected. "I've run for many positions, and I haven't won them all," Kapsky said.
Jenna Elson, a sophomore at East Brunswick High School, asked Kapsky, "Did you ever take two AP classes in a year?" The answer -- "My senior year I took four" -- was greeted with a chorus of "Oh my God!" from Elson and Fitzgerald, accompanied by looks of despair.
Kapsky reassured them. "Don't be intimidated," she said. "You'd be surprised how much you have a capacity to excel at different things. Go into the school year trying hard. If it becomes unmanageable, you can switch out."
She also told them, "I did not get straight A's in high school."
Later the group chatted informally over a lunch of Chinese food about their families, the classes they're taking and playing sports. It was a unique opportunity for a group of teenage girls to spend a few hours with young women who were interested in the girls' lives and did not hesitate to talk about their own successes and failures.
When Carol Tracy, a psychologist at the counseling center, first told her daughter, Lauren, about the program, the 14-year-old was reluctant to join. But after one session, her daughter raved to a friend about how much she had enjoyed it.
"(The Princeton students) made the girls very comfortable just sitting and talking about stuff that was really hard for them to talk about, like what was rough about school and their friends," Tracy said. "Lauren is at that age where girls are doubting themselves, and I was thinking it would be really wonderful for her to talk to other girls, get exposed to some new experiences and also hopefully feel good about herself."
Robin Frink, who works in the Office of Research and Project Administration, often gets this question from her daughter, Anaiya Fitzgerald, when she gets home from work: "Did we get an e-mail from the Princeton program today?" Fitzgerald is so enthusiastic that her 12-year-old sister wants to join when she gets older.
"It gives her an opportunity to be with other kids her age whose parents want the same thing for their kids as I do," Frink said. "As a parent, I'm concerned about her interacting with peers who have the same values."
The girls are eager to soak up everything about the Princeton students, from their opinions about applying early decision to college to their choices of footwear. "Once you reach a certain age, anything your parents say is not cool," Frink pointed out. "So it's great to have someone close to their age who can talk to them."
Fatima Montaño came home from the last session and told her mother, Sasa Olessi Montaño, the director of Princeton's Center for Community Service, that she had learned how important extracurricular activities are. "I have been telling her that, but when she hears it from these women, it makes an impact," Montaño said.
Upcoming sessions include a visit from Princeton faculty member Lisa Sternlieb, who will talk about the depiction of women in film, and perhaps an excursion into New York City. Arensman hopes the program will grow in the coming years. "We will see these girls throughout their high school careers," she said. "And we hope to introduce more girls every year."
For more information about the Girls Leadership Summit,
contact Allison Arensman at email@example.com
Deadline. In general, the copy deadline for each issue is the Friday 10 days in advance of the Monday cover date. The deadline for the Bulletin that covers April 15&endash;21 is Friday, April 5. A complete publication schedule is available at deadlines or by calling (609) 258-3601.
Editor: Ruth Stevens