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The Young Women Leaders Program at UCF, sponsored by The Women’s and Gender Studies program, gives female Knights the opportunity to mentor seventh-grade girls at a pivotal time in their lives.

UCF’s YWLP is a satellite program to the University of Virginia, where the program was founded in 1997.

The after-school curriculum-based mentoring program assigns one middle-school girl to one undergraduate or graduate UCF student.

Seventh graders, “Littles,” and UCF students, “Bigs,” meet on eight occasions throughout the semester. The meetings cover a variety of topics, ranging from body appreciation to leadership skills. The lessons are presented through group discussion and implementation by YWLP facilitators, such as Brittany Gil.

“Our motive is to revolutionize how society views and constructs girls, girlhood and girls’ leadership by creating spaces where girls can share their real-life experiences, build themselves up and learn from each other,” Gil said.

The YWLP — the vision of which is based on the idea that girls will change the world — provides an empowering space for the girls to develop their leadership and community-building skills.

Its work revolves around three concepts: competence, autonomy and connection. Developing leadership skills, providing a safe and positive space, and developing relationships are what drives the program.

“You would be amazed at the magic that lives inside of girls and even more amazed at how intelligent they are,” Gil said. “We see this by doing the simple tasks of listening and allowing them to be heard.”

While the program makes positive influences on the younger girls, Gil said she often sees middle-school girls making an equally positive impact on their mentors.

For Rachelle Rollins, a UCF junior and YWLP Big Sister, the program is a way to give back and influence a young girl’s life.

“They are in the transitioning phases of their lives, and the lessons taught in this program can be that extra guidance that they’ll need along the way,” Rollins said.

Rollins’ involvement in the program takes her back to her own middle-school days, when there were no mentoring programs like YWLP available to her.

“I went through a lot as a seventh grader and did not have any mentoring programs available for me. There was no Big Sister that I could look up to and talk to about those things,” Rollins said. “Being a Big Sister in this program allows me to give back to younger leaders and help them grow into the amazing young ladies they will be years down the line.”

Rollins said the program keeps her in check, serving as a reminder that someone looks up to her.

“There are some things that our Littles were unaware of before this program, and it is rewarding for them to learn things that are not being taught in schools,” Rollins said.

Becoming a YWLP Big Sister involves an application and interview process. Big Sisters are expected to be supportive and encouraging with their mentees, empowering their self-esteem and leadership capabilities.

More times than not, YWLP is not related to UCF students’ studies. Being involved in the program is often something students choose to do out of their own interest.

Little Sisters, who come from a variety of backgrounds, are nominated by teachers and counselors at their respective schools. As a Little Sister, a girl’s job is to communicate and take advantage of the safe, judgment-free environment with their mentor.

Currently, the program works in accordance with Lawton Chiles Middle School, South Seminole Middle School and Tuskawilla Middle School during the fall and spring semesters.

In addition to the direct work the program does with middle-school girls, the YWLP also has a research team.

According to the program website, at UCF, mixed-methods research includes interviews, direct observation, artifact collection and quantitative measures collected from the experiences of both the middle school Little Sisters and their Big Sister collegiate mentors.

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Rosie Reitze is a Contributing Writer for the Central Florida Future.

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