College women support middle school girls

MIDDLEBURY — Cocoa, whipped cream and marshmallows, popcorn and a goofy holiday movie (“Elf”), plus really cool college girls to look up to — what could be more inspiring to area middle school girls? It’s movie night at Middlebury College’s Sister-to-Sister program.
“It’s just a lot of fun because it’s with other girls my age and there are no annoying mean people,” said Middlebury Union Middle School seventh-grader Zora Duquette-Hoffman.
“You get to meet some of the college kids and get to know them,” her MUMS classmate Cathy Dyer chimed in. “And tonight there’s also whipped cream.”
Elena Bronson, a seventh-grader at Mount Abraham Union Middle School, took time out from piling on an even larger mountain of whipped cream onto her cocoa to add, “It’s really awesome, the vibes you get. The college girls are sort of role models and help me set higher expectations for myself.”
A program of the American Association of University Women, Sister-to-Sister brings together girls from the three Addison County middle schools — MUMS, Mount Abe and Vergennes — and young women at Middlebury College with the goal of empowering girls as they enter adolescence.
Girls are invited to participate in monthly two-hour events on campus and a one-day summit in November. At events, one “fun” activity is usually paired with a discussion. When sisters meet at the pool for log rolling, for example, they will get together after splashing in the water to discuss conceptions of body image. The program provides a safe space to talk about the challenges that girls face and enables them to develop friendships with other girls, even if they don’t go to the same school.
“Sister-to-Sister helps girls by creating a space for them to come together and be themselves without the pressures of home, school or boys,” said Sister-to-Sister student organizer Tricia Nelsen, a computer science major from Milwaukee.
“I feel like sometimes middle school girls can find it a little bit scary reaching out to other people or talking to their parents about things, so this provides a space where they can reach out and have fun and have someone to look up to who is not their parents,” added Middlebury freshman Ella Dyett, who hails from New York City.
The 2015 Vermont Youth Risk Behavior Survey (a co-project of the Vermont Department of Health and the Agency of Education) pointed to gender similarity and differences in teenagers. First, it found that girls and boys were similar in terms of experimenting with alcohol or marijuana and comfort in talking with parents. Girls, it said, “were significantly less likely to report ever having sexual intercourse” (4 percent) than boys (7 percent).
It also found that for middle school girls:
•  53 percent reported being bullied (as compared to 40 percent of boys).
•  23 percent had seriously thought about suicide (as compared to 12 percent of boys).
Middle school can be a particularly pivotal time for girls. Numerous studies over the past decade have described how girls lose confidence and self-esteem at that age (see, for example, www.davidsongifted.org/Search-Database/entry/A10852). Interest in science and math plummets from grade school levels. And the neuroscience of being female suggests that as girls mature the physiological changes of puberty emphasize bonding and connection over risk-taking (the influence of estrogen as compared to testosterone), possibly making girls more susceptible to cultural stereotypes and peer pressure.
“I think middle school has always been a hard time of transition and everyone experiences it differently,” said Middlebury College student Emily Uhrynuk, who took part in the December Sister-to-Sister event.
Sister-to-Sister achieves its goals of girl power by letting the good times roll.
Karin Hanta, director of Chellis House, the college’s women’s resource center, began to develop Middlebury’s Sister-to-Sister program in a J-term class in 2005. The nascent group held its first event that April. The program is now in its 12th year. Hanta said that while a core group of about a dozen Middlebury students plan the events, over the course of a year about a hundred college students engage as volunteers.
Outreach is an important part of Sister-to-Sister, Hanta emphasized. Organizers get in touch with guidance counselors, teachers and other key players at local schools to bring in as broad a range of girls as possible. This includes taking Sister-to-Sister’s message right to the all-important middle school lunch table.
“They (the college student organizers) just come and sit down and strike up a conversation and tell the girls about Sister-to-Sister and try to get them excited,” said Hanta.
To keep the program accessible, all events are free, snacks are provided, and transportation can be arranged.
If December’s movie night was decidedly laid back, other planned or past events get girls hustling. Activities have included navigating a ropes course; going on a Halloween scavenger hunt; exploring science and technology; and singing, dancing and trying improvisational acting together. Plans for January 2017 include sledding and a snowball fight against the College’s Brother-to-Brother program for middle school boys.
But not all the benefit is for the middle school girls. For Dyett, the Middlebury freshman, Sister-to-Sister provides “a way to be involved in the larger Middlebury community.”
“The most meaningful part of Sister-to-Sister for me is the feeling of love and acceptance,” added Uhrynuk. “We are all there for one another. There’s no need to try and prove yourself to anyone. Seeing these girls feel free to just be themselves, with no inhibitions or worries about being graded or judged by others, is a truly beautiful thing. I’ve seen girls transform over the span of the year, as they become more comfortable and confident to speak their thoughts and feelings around others.”
Added Nelsen, “I think what’s most meaningful about participating in Sister-to-Sister is being able to act as a positive role model and show what’s possible for females to accomplish if we put our minds to it.”
For more information about Sister-to-Sister contact Karin Hanta at [email protected] or call 802-443-5937.
Reporter Gaen Murphree is reached at [email protected].

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