Rutgers Project Offers Mentoring to Teens in Foster Care

Rutgers Project Offers Mentoring to Teens in Foster Care

Students forge bonds through one-on-one relationships

Project GROW grew out of a group therapy program GSAPP runs for adolescent girls in resource care, including foster, relative and adoptive families.
You’re a teenage girl, and life hasn’t been particularly kind. You’ve lived in foster care for too many years, with too few positive role models. You feel isolated and alone.

A program offered cooperatively through Rutgers’ Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology (GSAPP) and the Institute for Women’s Leadership (IWL) is reaching out to this population.

Now entering its second year, Project GROW links high school students in foster care with Rutgers undergraduates in a one-on-one mentoring relationship.

“Who talks with these girls about their plans for the future? Who encourages them to strive, to aim for bigger and better things? That’s where the mentoring piece comes in – to show them what’s possible for them, and help guide them on how to achieve it,” says Robin Lang, director of GSAPP's Foster Care Counseling Project.

Project GROW – Girls Realizing Opportunities in the World –  is an outgrowth of an ongoing group therapy program GSAPP runs for adolescent girls in resource care, including foster, relative and adoptive families.

The program began last fall, when six undergraduate women recruited through IWL began preparing to sit down for 90 minutes every other week with their mentees, all young women from Middlesex and Mercer counties between the ages of 14 and 17.

The target audience was girls who have shown potential for academic and personal achievement, but whose history, experiences and/or emotional difficulties have presented barriers to tapping into that potential, Lang says.

Throughout the fall of 2011, the mentors worked with GSAPP graduate supervisors, getting a thorough grounding in the special relationship that can develop in a mentoring relationship. GSAPP doctoral students Shoshana Friedman and Danielle Zurawiecki facilitated the mentees’ psychotherapy group, as well as training and supervising the mentors.

The Rutgers participants also took a three-credit class,  “Mentoring, Leadership and Young Women’s Lives,” led by Sasha Taner, associate director of leadership programs and research at IWL.

“The capacity for young women to develop and practice their mentoring skills with other young women is an important tool of leadership focused on social change,” says Taner, a graduate of the IWL Leadership Scholars Program.

The Rutgers students and their young friends ate dinners together, took walks, and chatted about self-identity, bullying, and health and wellness, among other wide-ranging topics. They made bracelets at a bead shop, and attended events on the Rutgers campus.

Most important, project organizers note, they built a relationship based on mutual trust and understanding.

Lisa Hetfield, IWL associate director, points out that bringing the high school students to campus gives them a goal and offers glimpses of a future they might not otherwise envision. “GROW opens doors to the next step for them,” she says. “It helps them imagine what life can be like here, in a residence hall, in a dining hall.”

With a new crop of mentors poised to begin their training for the 2012-2013 academic year, Lang and others involved in the project stress that it is important that the women from the IWL take away something from the process.

“One of the things that happen is that mentors come in with high expectations about what they’re going to accomplish. In this program, they learn to accept that small gains are also important, that they can have an impact in a more nuanced way by just being there, supporting the girls, being a constant presence,” Lang says.

For Marisa Irabli, a rising junior in Rutgers' School of Arts and Sciences, the relationship that developed with her 16-year-old mentee packed an unexpected wallop.

 “I hoped to have this adorable, sweet girl know that there are people who are interested in what is going on in her life. I wanted her to look forward to seeing me as much as I looked forward to seeing her, which I think I succeeded in doing. I wanted her to know that my doing the program had nothing to do with a grade or a credit, but with wanting to be there for her.

Originally intending to major in biology, the Bayville resident was so moved by her experience that she switched to psychology (with a triple minor in biology, French linguistics and women’s and gender studies) and now plans to specialize in developmental psychology in graduate school.

“This program was a way of showing me my life’s goal,” says Irabli, who knew she had made a breakthrough in the therapeutic process when her once-reserved mentee called during winter break to wish her a happy birthday.