Senior Caroline Theriault, junior Brigitte Frett, and sophomores Jessica Levin and Emily Theriault organized the day-long event, bringing fellow students, staff, and faculty together with middle school girls and other members of the local community. During the gathering, the school girls were invited to discuss issues and engage in a wide variety of workshop activities. Each of them was also presented with a "Sister-to-Sister" T-shirt, designed by Frett, and a personal journal to keep track of their thoughts and discoveries.
In October 2004, AAUW-Vermont president Dorothy Hart Rand approached Middlebury College about having a "Sister-to-Sister" summit on campus. She met with Gail D. Smith, who is the associate director of athletics, a faculty member, and the AAUW representative for the College; Karin Hanta, who is director of the College's women's and gender studies resource center, the Chellis House; and Liane Barrera, who is a programmer/analyst for the College's Library & Information Services Department and also treasurer of the local chapter of AAUW.
Recognizing the potential for the "Sister-to-Sister" mentoring opportunity to be a broadening experience for both College and middle school students, Smith and Hanta put together a four-week internship for course credit during winter term to implement the project, and invited all College students on the Chellis House mailing list to apply. Before the end of the month, Frett, Levin, and the two Theriault sisters were selected for the "Sister-to-Sister" endeavor.
"I remember how difficult middle school was and how helpful it would have been to talk to someone without any pressure," said Jessica Levin, a religion major who also works as a teaching assistant at Mary Hogan School in Middlebury.
Showing the younger girls a world beyond junior high school, and that their difficulties while growing up are not abnormal or everlasting could save them from unnecessary anxiety during the transition between childhood and womanhood, according to Emily Theriault, a political science major. "As a middle school girl, I had my fair share of insecurities and complexes that I only later realized were common and unfounded," she said. "I wanted "Sister-to-Sister" to show girls that they don't have to hate themselves first to learn to love themselves."
In preparation for the internship assignment, the four students began in early November 2004 to visit middle schools in Bristol, Middlebury and Vergennes to talk with principals and guidance counselors about it. Throughout December and January, Frett, Levin and the two Theriaults met in focus groups with middle school girls to gather their ideas.
In January, the interns mapped out every aspect of the event. "As with any pilot program, the road to completion was a little bumpy," said Emily Theriault. "But, as we were reminded at one of our very first meetings at Chellis House, we are all women, women always persevere, and in the end we always get the job done."
Components of Middlebury's "Sister-to-Sister Summit" were numerous and varied. Breakfast and a game of bingo broke the ice for a day that included discussions about the influence of media stereotyping and its effect on the development of self image, peer pressure and relationships among middle school girls, decision-making, stress reduction, physical fitness, nutrition and goal setting. Workshops for break dancing, Latin dancing, creative writing, self defense, trust-building skills and Indian cooking were also offered. Two Middlebury College student a capella groups, the Bobolinks and Stuck in the Middle, performed during the free luncheon, which was donated by Vermont-based pizza manufacturer American Flatbread. The day concluded with the "Action Platform," a discussion by the whole group about ways the middle school girls can use what they learned during the day to make positive change in their school communities.
"It was an extraordinary day that brought together 27 middle school girls, more than 70 Middlebury College students, and 30 faculty, staff and community volunteers," noted Smith. "It's a powerful example of how the educational experience of a January internship can motivate students to engage in a community social imperative."
"Many of the girls we were working with had a tendency to fly under the radar, but on that one day they had a whole multitude of individuals working solely to inform and entertain them," said Caroline Theriault, an international studies major who will graduate from Middlebury in May 2005. "It was amazing to see the effect that the concentration of positive attention had on these girls."
"One of the biggest lessons we learned from this experience is that there is a great need out in the Middlebury community for the continuation of programs of this nature," said Brigitte Frett, a neuroscience major who also volunteers with Community Friends, a local mentoring program. Frett hopes to see the "Sister-to-Sister" day become a tradition at the College, and will begin planning with Levin and Emily Theriault early in the fall 2005 semester for the second annual summit.