Pam Eddy and Youngshin Han ‘13 claimed a high-top table together inside Swem Library’s Mews Café on a recent rainy afternoon.
The unlikely duo – an education professor who only teaches graduate students and the undergraduate English major – had never met before this semester, but now they meet nearly every week to talk about not only their academic work, but their lives, as well.
“I like that a lot, and I wish I could do it more with professors and faculty, just knowing them as real people,” said Han.
The two are part of a new women’s mentoring program that began at William & Mary this year through a grassroots effort. The program pairs female undergraduate students with female faculty and staff members in an effort to inspire and empower women on campus and beyond.
“I think that this kind of program could be really pivotal in the lives of the people who are participating and could last a really long time,” said Melody Porter, one of the program’s founders. “I think it could have greater ripples than we could imagine on this campus.”
The idea for the program came from a documentary that was screened at William & Mary last semester by Student Assembly. The movie, titled “Miss Representation,” focuses on the media’s often-negative portrayal of women. A speed-dating-like mentoring program for young women on Capitol Hill is featured in the film, and when Porter saw it during the screening, she whispered to Elizabeth Miller, “Let’s do this.”
Porter, the associate director of the Office of Community Engagement, and Miller, W&M’s coordinator of community engagement, met soon after with Kim Green ’13 to discuss a possible program.
Green, who brought the film to campus while serving as the Student Assembly’s undersecretary of LGBT affairs, said that, from her conversations with other students, she knew that such a program was needed.
"I know there was one graduate student who said, 'I wish there was an easier way for me to communicate with people in Student Affairs and say, "Ginger Ambler, I want to be you."' But she didn’t know how to create these connections," said Green. "I’d also been interested in doing that myself."
With Green on board, Porter and Miller next reached out to female administrators and faculty members on campus, forming a working group of about 20 people that helped solidify the program’s vision.
For its pilot year, the group decided that the program should focus on matching female students to female faculty and staff members so that the pairs could form a one-on-one mentoring relationship. The group also settled on three goals for the student participants: feel more connected to the W&M community, develop a personal community of support and receive guidance on personal, academic or career goals.
“The idea is that it’s about both personal and professional flourishing,” said Miller. “We felt like there were already spaces for academic development and opportunities for career guidance, but we really wanted a space where women could talk about what it means to be a female as you go through college and then plan for the future.”
Once the vision for the program was in place and some funding was secured through an anonymous gift and the Parents Fund, a steering committee of eight to 12 women went to work on putting the plan into action.
They hosted a speed-dating-like “matching event” in September with potential mentors and protégés. Once the 19 matches were announced, the pairs met and worked on developing mentoring agreements, which outlined things like what they hope to get out of the experience.
‘Anything and everything’
According to Porter and Miller, the pairs were asked to meet at least once a month. However, the two have heard that many are meeting much more often and building very personal relationships that have been mutually benefitting.
Han and Eddy, for instance, meet almost every week, talking about “anything and everything,” they said.
“Early on, we talked about just being people, and so that has been an interesting guiding principle in that you don’t often get an informal relationship with faculty and students,” said Eddy, associate professor of higher education.
Although Han has received support in other ways as an undergraduate, she said that it has been beneficial to “not get mentoring in just one type of way.”
“Because then, you build up a history of going to that person for one type of thing only, but here I feel like I have a lot more openness to talk about anything that is coming up or being on my mind,” she said.
The two have discussed Eddy’s experiences as a young college graduate, Han’s plans for after graduation and her family’s upcoming move -- something that Eddy has been able to relate to, as she moved several times when her children were young.
“The cool piece for me is when mentors are able to recognize that, ‘Wow, this was or is a challenge in my life. I see it for my protégé as well. I can help that person move through that, whatever it is,’” said Miller.
Porter added, “I think that when you’ve been through something difficult on your own, it gains value when you are able to help someone else with a similar difficulty.”
Although Han will soon graduate and leave the College, she and Eddy plan to remain in touch.
“I think I get to take away a relationship,” said Han. “I feel like even after I graduate, I’ll be able to e-mail back to Pam and say, this is what’s going on.”
The future of the program
In addition to the one-on-one meetings, the program is also offering events. This semester, they screened “Miss Representation” again, with a discussion session beforehand. In mid-December, they will host a mentor mixer so that the faculty and staff members who are participating can discuss their experiences with other mentors in the program. Next semester, the program will host a panel discussion and a special speaker.
Throughout the year, the program’s steering committee is also conducting assessments so that they can see what is working and what might need to be changed if the program continues.
Miller and Porter said that they are still a bit shocked that the mentoring program became a reality from that little moment in last year’s movie screening, but they are beginning to look at the future of the program, trying to find ways to keep it going and maybe even expanding it so that young or new staff members might also be protégés.
As a 2011 alumna of the College and now a staff member herself, Miller said that working on program has meant a lot to her personally.
“It’s been really powerful for me just as a young staff member to be in a room with these powerful women and learning about what brought them to this table and what experiences motivate them but also the ideas they have for the school and this campus,” said Miller.
Porter added, “I feel so encouraged to be in a place where a little idea like that can catch on and have people throw their all into it. That’s been really awesome to be a part of."