At the final meeting of Bowdoin’s FFLY mentoring group this year, bear hugs were given, compliments shared, and ice cream and cup cakes eaten. A symbolic string bracelet was tied on the wrist of each member. Later, when a yellow school bus pulled up, the young mentees said their final goodbyes (some of them tearful) before sprinting through the rain to the bus.
FFLY, short for Fostering Female Leadership in Youth, is a student organization developed entirely by Bowdoin college students. Every Friday afternoon for the past two years, 16 female college students have traveled to the middle school in neighboring Bath to meet with 16 middle school girls. There, the older students have led one-hour group lessons before splitting up into mentor-mentee pairs for 30 minutes to talk about whatever the younger girls wanted to discuss.
“The focus is to let them talk and think things through and make them feel supported in their self-exploration,” Michelle Wiener ’14 said. Wiener and Adrienne Hanson ’14 led FFLY this year.
Bowdoin students in 2012 wanted to create a mentoring group that would match the realities of growing up in a small Maine town. “We felt very strongly that our mentees needed us less for support and more that they needed a space to explore issues that affected them,” Wiener said.
Wiener, with Zoe Eiber ’13 and Sasha Davis ’13, wrote a brand new curriculum for the weekly lessons and called their new organization FFLY. They also developed a five-week, 12.5-hour program to train college mentors to work with girls between the ages of 11 and 14. The program covers issues such as listening, motivational techniques, mental health and curriculum writing.
Each week, two of the mentors design a group discussion and activity around the lesson theme. The lessons tackle topics such as friendship, bullying (middle school girls are more likely to call it “drama”), boundary setting, body satisfaction and health. Weaved into these lessons are skill-building activities, like developing communication skills and working with a team. At the end of the year, the middle schoolers make one visit to Bowdoin to see a college campus.
One of the activities at the final sessions was to write nice things about people on pieces of paper taped to their backs.
The middle school program was so successful its first year that the Bath school administration asked the Bowdoin students to develop a similar one for high school girls. Casey Stewart ’14 designed and led the high school program; she launched a pilot version this spring with four other mentors. “Research shows that there’s a positive impact from mentoring on girls’ mental health,” said Stewart, a psychology minor and history major.
Stewart has a job next year with the Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation. “FFLY helped me get my job,” she said. The foundation, based in Philadelphia, uses hockey to build character and academic skills for high-risk inner-city boys and girls.
The Bowdoin students do not miss a Friday session if they can help it, Wiener said, because continuity and consistency are important for the younger girls. “To have a place where someone older is giving them their full attention is something they don’t get a lot,” she said. “It’s something that people don’t get a lot in general!”
At times the one-on-one conversations can be hard. Over the past year the middle school girls grappled with the suicide of a peer, self-injury and difficult family and social situations. “We ride the roller-coaster with them,” Hanson said. It helps that many of the college women — who were, after all, in middle school not so long ago— have dealt with similar issues. “Or it’s stuff we’re still dealing with!” she said. Hanson, a biology major, said FFLY has inspired her to pursue health education. Her longterm goal is to be a primary care physician.
Wiener, who is a government and legal studies/sociology major and a gender and women’s studies minor, said FFLY has been her most significant experience at Bowdoin. She is now seeking a job in youth development and empowerment. “I love working with young people,” she said. “I love the transient place they’re in and how they’re figuring out who they are and what they want. It brings into focus that so much of life is about transition and moving through things.”