Mentors Put Young Girls on Path to Success in Service-Learning Class

As fifth- and sixth-grade students decorated cookies with colorful frosting and gumdrops, Aya Amous supervised, sprinkling in encouragement.

“That’s so cute,” the child learning and development junior told one of the girls seated around a long table during an after-school class at Richardson Terrace Elementary School. “I love the patterns,” she said to another.

Amous and other University of Texas at Dallas students serve as instructors and mentors for GIRLS class — which stands for Going Into Real Life Successfully — as part of their coursework for one of the University’s growing number of community-based service learning classes.

Funded through a University of Texas System grant, the courses give students the opportunity to explore new topics while serving the community.

The UT Dallas students make GIRLS fun — but the class, offered through the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences, also has a serious purpose.

The University created the weekly class last fall for Richardson Independent School District (RISD) to address bullying and social media conflict for upper-elementary girls at one campus. When that class helped reduce incidents at the school, the district asked UT Dallas to expand the class to two additional campuses this spring.

“Through GIRLS, our students develop empathy by working not only with their peers but also through their interaction with the UTD students,” said Ashlea Campbell, program specialist for Student Assistance in RISD. “They see experiences similar to their own, but also learn from those that differ.”

“I hope the UT Dallas students end the class understanding what a difference they can make in small ways that lead to big changes. What they are doing can really change the direction of these girls’ lives and help prevent problems as they go into middle school and beyond.”

Dr. Neetha Devdas BS’01, psychology lecturer who teaches the course

After the recent cookie-decorating activity, neuroscience sophomore Nora Stillwell, a facilitator that day, led an exercise about leadership.

Stillwell asked the elementary students to write down their biggest fears they associated with being a leader. Then she read the anonymous answers out loud.

Responses ranged from “being too much to handle” to “what I think of myself and what other people think of me.” After reading one paper that stated a fear of making a mistake, Stillwell asked how the students could overcome that fear.

One girl raised her hand.

“Remember everybody makes mistakes,” she said.

Another added: “Even if they make a mistake, they can learn from it.”

After the discussion, Stillwell instructed each student to take a scrap of paper.

“We’re going to rip them up to symbolize overcoming our fears,” Stillwell said. Another UT Dallas student collected the paper while Stillwell asked the elementary students how the exercise felt.

“Amazing,” one of the girls said.

The UT Dallas students handed out homework assignments to pick three leadership qualities that best represent them and think of ways to incorporate them into their life every day for the next week. The activities help the elementary students learn about one another and about how they are not alone in their struggles, said Dr. Neetha Devdas BS’01, psychology lecturer and licensed psychologist who teaches the course.

“They are getting tools to help them deal with conflict, learn what healthy friendships and relationships entail, and how to be kinder to themselves and those around them,” she said.

Devdas said her students learn as much as the elementary girls.

“I hope the UT Dallas students end the class understanding what a difference they can make in small ways that lead to big changes,” she said. “What they are doing can really change the direction of these girls’ lives and help prevent problems as they go into middle school and beyond.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was originally published The University of Texas at Dallas.

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Community Works Journal: Digital Magazine for Educators

place as the context, service-learning as the strategy, sustainable communities as the goal