A Women’s Center mentoring program helps girls through a rough spot: middle school
The middle school years aren’t exactly known as a peak life experience, what with their body image awkwardness, mental health issues, and social angst. Jenna Malyn, a junior majoring in marketing and business management, described her own middle school years as “genuinely traumatizing.”
Back then, Malyn used to wish she had someone like an older sister to help her navigate her struggles. So when she heard about AWARE, a middle school mentoring program run by the Women’s Center at Virginia Tech, she decided to become the strong female role model she always wished she’d had. “We all probably could have used it,” Malyn said. “I know I could have.”
Each week during the 2021–22 academic year, Malyn and about a dozen other AWARE mentors headed three miles down Prices Fork Road to Blacksburg Middle School. There they joined groups of sixth, seventh, or eighth graders to talk about some of the stickiest stuff of adolescence.
Healthy relationships. Body image. Race. LGBTQ+ issues. Mental wellness. Family challenges.
For that 42-minute meeting period, AWARE mentors are a respected, relatable friend — old enough to look up to but not old enough to be intimidating. “There is a certain kind of alchemy that happens with the college students and the middle school girls,” said Jessie Meltsner, special projects coordinator with the Women’s Center and director of AWARE. “They listen to the same music, they have the same social media, they have lived the same lives much more recently.
“If we tried to send in older adults, I have this image of it just being like the Charlie Brown teacher: ‘Wah wah.’ But they really connect in a way that's meaningful and so great to watch.”
About 60 middle school girls joined AWARE in fall 2021, said Katie Conaway, professional school counselor at Blacksburg Middle School. “The interest is really huge. Because the volunteers are in college, middle school girls see someone close to their age who remembers their own experience and can share how they coped and dealt with similar issues that the middle school girls are going through.”
Or as volunteer mentor Olivia Harrison, a 2022 graduate in human nutrition, foods, and exercise, put it, “It's because we're technically adults, but none of us feels like it.”
Because AWARE doesn’t have a set curriculum, mentors collaborate to plan lessons and activities based on the concerns of each grade-level cohort. Mostly they listen and have honest conversations. “I find a lot of times they open up a lot more when they see that we're not going to talk down to them,” said Sofie Piper ’22, who earned degrees in communications and political science, who worked with AWARE throughout her time at Virginia Tech.
Sometimes, after an AWARE meeting, a student would pull a mentor aside to thank them, admit that they’ve been struggling with something, even ask for another lesson on a particular topic. That’s when mentors knew their yearlong commitment was worth it.
With four or five mentors working with each grade-level cohort, the hope was that each girl would find at least one woman to whom she connected. The sisterly relationships that resulted were evident in hugs, high fives, and nonstop chatter last April, when about 30 AWARE students rode a yellow school bus to Virginia Tech to explore their mentors’ home base.
The middle schoolers and mentors spent the day visiting campus labs, eating in the D2 dining hall, and enjoying a performance by a group of Marching Virginians on Henderson Lawn. “Just the fact that these college students that have all these other pressures are willing to pick out that time to serve our middle school population is just incredible,” Conaway said.
The mentors even squeezed in one last thoughtful discussion about family relationships in a Squires Student Center classroom. Middle schoolers shot their hands in the air to share tales of parents who just don’t understand.
“I think middle school is a really cool age,” said Piper, who joined AWARE in 2019. “It's such a pivotal point in their lives, where every influence is really important.”
The impact, Piper added, runs both ways. “I think it's healing in a certain way. They all have such awesome opinions and perspectives, and they ask such good questions. It's just really encouraging to see the values they hold and the things they want to do in the world. And it makes me really excited for all of them to grow up.”