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Guiding Teen Girls Toward College
It’s 10 pm on a Thursday night. Outside the Women’s Center, in the heart of the UW’s Seattle campus, all is quiet. But inside the building, students crowd around a computer, cheering each other on as they do something they’ve worked toward for years: submit their college applications.
The application party is an annual tradition for the Making Connections(MC) program, run by the UW Women’s Center. Now in its fourteenth year, the program helps first-generation, low-income girls graduate from high school on time, enroll in college, and receive the financial support needed for their studies.
The Women’s Center launched the program after discovering that programs existed for stellar students and at-risk students, but not for students in the middle of the pack. The Center developed the MC program for this overlooked group.
One hundred high school girls participate each year, receiving comprehensive services that include tutoring four times a week, a personal mentor, college tours, assistance with college and financial aid applications, field trips to local companies, and conferences that introduce them to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics careers.
“We recently took a field trip to Seattle BioMed,” says Senait Habte, program manager for the Making Connections program. “In one day, the students heard about epidemics around the world, toured the lab, and put on lab coats and dissected mosquitoes in a petri dish under a microscope. We want them to see that this is something they could do. We want to plant the seed.”
Keeping Students on Track
Historically, the MC program has recruited girls toward the end of their sophomore year of high school, to work with them during their junior and senior years. But that proved too late for students who had already let their grades slide to a damaging degree. Now the staff tries to reach students earlier. Students are selected through an application and interview process to ensure a good fit. “We don’t have a minimum GPA for participants,” says Habte, “but we are targeting that middle-level child.”
Temneet Sahle was one such teen. The daughter of Eritrean immigrants, Sahle’s high school grades were average at best before joining the MC program. "I was fully content with the idea of going straight to community college after high school,” recalls Sahle. “I believed that I wasn’t qualified enough to gain acceptance to universities with my low grades and lack of extracurricular activities.” Through the MC program, Sahle not only raised her grades but also learned that her life experience—tutoring her cousins, helping care for her disabled father—would be factored into her college admission. Even more important, says Sahle, “the people involved in the program made me feel like I was worth all of the help I was receiving, and that colleges would be crazy not to accept me. That contributed most to the change in my character.”
Sahle is now a senior at the UW, majoring in American ethnic studies—and serving as an MC tutor and mentor. “I really wanted to give back to the source of my success,” she says. Sahle is in good company. More than a dozen UW students volunteer their time as tutors for the program, covering such subjects as chemistry, physics, mathematics, English, and Spanish. Although tutoring is available to all MC participants, those with a GPA below 2.5 are required to attend the tutoring sessions to ensure that they stay on track.
Beyond tutoring, every MC teen is paired with a female mentor for the duration of the program. Mentors can be college undergraduates, graduate students, or professionals. “The mentors talk about how they got to where they are now,” says Women’s Center director Sutapa Basu. “It’s good for the girls to hear from a mentor that they had some trouble areas in high school too, and what they had to do to get past that.” There are organized gatherings for the mentor-teen pairs, including bowling and service activities; they also meet for coffee and communicate by phone or email.
Mahlet Assefa, now a sophomore at Yale University, says that having a mentor was invaluable. “I went through so many states of confusion about my future during senior year, and without my mentor there to help me dissect exactly what I was thinking and what my plans were for myself, I’m not quite sure I would be where I am today. My mentor actually came to my graduation party and met my entire family. They absolutely loved her.”
UW bioengineering major Brittney McKenzie still recalls the “great mentoring match” she had as an MC participant. Now, as a mentor herself, she feels “this great responsibility of guiding the student that I mentor into making the right decisions.” She adds,” I want my mentee and other high school students to know that they can follow their dreams and make it if they work hard and never give up.”
Going the Extra Step
As their senior year nears, dreams of college become more real for MC students. The program organizes a college tour for juniors, visiting a range of schools from small liberal arts colleges to large research universities to alternative schools to show the options available. “After the visits, the students are empowered,” says organizer Habte. “It just blows their mind. They realize there is a whole big world out there. It all becomes realistic.”
Then comes the challenging part: selecting schools and completing applications. Habte meets with each MC student prior to senior year to ask the hard questions and help develop an action plan. “We map the schools they’re considering and really talk about them. We have a realistic conversation about cost, competitiveness, and everything else that they need to consider.”
Mentors and tutors also serve as sounding boards and help the teens prepare admissions essays. The girls support each other as well, never more loudly than when they gather in the Women’s Center to submit their college applications online.
“It’s chaos,” jokes Habte. “We have lots of extra volunteer editors there to help out during that final week for applications. Every time someone is ready to send in an application, the others rush around her, clapping and cheering and drumming on the desk. We ring a bell when she hits the ‘send’ button. It’s that kind of environment.” (See the video below for one such moment.)
That spirit of camaraderie—and all the support from peers, staff, tutors, and mentors—has made the Making Connections program among the most successful of its type in the country, with 100 percent of its participants over the past five years going to college. “Most programs have a 60 percent success rate,” says Basu. “Ours is so comprehensive. We go the extra step. Nothing is beyond us or beneath us.”
Case in point: When Assefa was accepted to Yale and Columbia, she wanted to visit both schools to make her decision, but her parents could not take time off of work to accompany her. Learning this, MC program manager Habte offered to visit the schools with Assefa. “She didn’t want me to miss out on any aspect of the visits, so she attended all the functions meant for parents,” recalls Assefa. “More than advisor, she is a friend and a sister to me. Hers is the kind of support that I'm not sure I can ever repay.”
For Habte, seeing her MC students realize their dreams is repayment enough. “I remember when Assefa came in, beaming, with her acceptance letter from Yale,” says Habte. “To see these students living up to their potential is wonderful.”
Making Connections is grateful to its generous donors, who make many of its activities possible. To learn more about the Making Connections program, click here. To make a gift to the program, click here.