Link-Up sponsors ‘Sister-to-Sister'

by Amelia Acosta | 5/17/12 10:00pm

Girls from local middle schools crowded into Alumni Hall on Thursday for Sister-to-Sister, an event sponsored by Link-Up that featured guest speakers, group discussions and interactive activities designed to foster discussion about the many challenges facing young women today.

Sister-to-Sister returned after a one-year hiatus and brought 120 girls from five local middle schools together for one day. The event aimed to "fill the void" for young women looking for leadership and guidance, according to Kelsey Stimson '15, who chaired the event with Lexi Campbell '13.

"If you ask any woman at Dartmouth about what their middle school experience was like and what they wish they would have known, there would be a strong need for leadership and mentorship," Stimson said. "That's what Link-Up is all about here at Dartmouth, so we figured why not extend that even further."

The event schedule featured both presentations and activities, after which Dartmouth students led discussions between the younger girls. Sister-to-Sister focused on middle school girls in order to reach women at one of the most "formative ages" of their lives, according to Center for Women and Gender Assistant Director Stephanie Chestnut.

"Any person who has been through middle school, man or woman, knows it's the hardest three or four years of your life," Chestnut said. "You're just starting to break away from your parents, form your own identity, and a lot of that identity comes from social groups. A part of the goal here is to give these girls the tools they need to make good choices in terms of friend groups, anti-bullying and mental health."

Chestnut said that one of the most popular events was a presentation by Kate Rohdenburg, prevention and education coordinator at WISE of the Upper Valley, an organization that provides resources to victims of domestic abuse and sexual violence. Rohdenburg spoke about the influences of media and society on young women's self-perception.

"Students really got a lot out of her talk, and it brought up a lot of issues that students hadn't really thought about before in terms of how marketing creates a need for goods by creating insecurities in the customer," Chestnut said. "Magazines are telling these girls what razors to buy, what diet pills to use, and they're all trying to fit in, make themselves acceptable to society. We're helping students to look critically at media images and recognize what's behind them, recognize that if they're being told they're not good enough the way they are, it's to sell a product."

Students also participated in an activity called "Crossing the Line," in which a facilitator would read out statements and the girls would cross a line on the floor if they felt the statement applied to them. "Crossing the Line" had a major impact on the girls' self-perception, according to Kayley Smith, a student at Charlestown Middle School.

"It was my favorite part," Smith said. "For a minute, I felt like I wasn't lying to myself."

The students' willingness to participate in each activity made the event especially effective and rewarding, Campbell said.

"Both Kelsey and I wish we had had something like this in middle school, because it definitely would have given me more perspective and changed the person I was in high school," Campbell said. "The girls were so elegant and so cognizant of the issues, and there's no reason we need to wait until high school or college to start having these conversations."

The day included a discussion based on clips from the movie "Mean Girls" (2004) to start a deeper discussion about the interactions between women on a daily basis, according to Campbell. The girls who attended the event had access to guidance counselors throughout the day if there was an issue they felt they needed to discuss or share.

A panel of four Dartmouth women who asked to remain anonymous due to the sensitive nature of their stories shared their own experiences with bullying and self-doubt and responded to questions from the audience about handling insecurity and overcoming personal challenges. A panelist from the Class of 2012 encouraged the students to overcome their fears about seeking help if they needed it.

"One of the reasons I was slow to ask for help is because I didn't want to burden other people," she said. "I didn't realize it can be really flattering to a person if you trust them to ask for their guidance and think their advice will be helpful to you, so don't hesitate to do that."

A panelist from the Class of 2013 emphasized that students can be some of the most important resources to each other during challenging times in middle school.

"It takes courage to reach out to people you're not friends with and include them, but it makes such a difference, and it will make you feel good about yourself," the panelist said. "If your friends think you're weird for talking to and being nice to another person, maybe re-evaluate what those friends mean to you. We should always be reaching out to others and being courageous enough to lend a helping hand."

All four of the panelists spoke of the importance of getting immediate help for someone who has even hinted at hurting themselves or others, regardless of any concerns about privacy.

"Privacy doesn't matter when they're dead," another panelist from the Class of 2013 said.

The importance of finding people who can serve as mentors and role models is paramount, especially at a young age, according to the fourth panelist, also from the Class of 2012.

"Try out a bunch of people, tell a lot of people a little bit about your story or what makes you sad, and you'll really be surprised by how many people want to help you," she said. "It's OK if the first person you try doesn't click. Mentors can come in really strange packages. You just have to be proactive about seeking them out."

The girls "really enjoyed themselves" throughout the day and hope to return next year, according to Rachel Wilson, a teacher at Charlestown Middle School.

"The most important thing the girls got out of today was that there's no specific background that these issues are isolated to," Wilson said.

Many teachers expressed hope that a similar program would begin for male middle school students. A comparable program, Boys Speak Out, was discontinued "several years ago," but there is a demand for the program to expand to boys in the future, according to Chestnut.

"We haven't had as much interest in mentorship from boys on this campus, but its slowly growing with things like Men's Forum," she said. "Masculinity issues are really important for teenage boys, and they're getting a lot of mixed issues about what it means to be a man. Dartmouth men could serve as great role models."

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