August 22, 2018
Written by Katie Kuhn, United Way of Greater Milwaukee & Waukesha County
When Oby Nwabuzor, a community volunteer, entered James Madison Academic Campus for her first Women United Mentoring Session, she intentionally went in without expectations. “I knew it wasn’t going to be about me,” remembers Oby. “It’s about the girls.”
Since 2015, United Way’s Women United donor group has hosted quarterly mentoring sessions with sophomore girls at James Madison, a Milwaukee Community School. This program is designed to engage and provide role models with a focus on mentoring around issues to help the girls succeed in career and life.
Volunteers are matched one-on-one or one-on-two with students and have candid conversations around professionalism, resume building, and interview skills. Conversations vary based on the interests and goals of the students.
Oby works with Linda and Myonna. When they met, Linda had recently transferred to James Madison from another school and was struggling to achieve enough credits to pass on to the next grade. Both girls wanted to improve their grades and find part-time jobs for extra money.
“Linda and Myonna are bright and receptive to advice to help them do better and become leaders of tomorrow,” says Oby. “However, it took a while for us to get there.”
Many of the students at James Madison have experienced challenges that can make it difficult to succeed in school, such as poverty, homelessness, and trauma.
“The ideal approach to this is to build a relationship,” says Oby. “As you build that relationship, you help build these young people up. And then, as you build people up, you’re able to expose them to things they may not have been exposed to. That’s when the mentoring comes in.”
Both Linda and Myonna identify as Black, which is one of the reasons Oby felt motivated to mentor in this space. “I wanted the girls to see someone professional who looked like them. I don’t think young girls of color often see other women of color in that perspective.”
Over the course of four sessions, Oby, Linda, and Myonna talked about everything, from professionalism and how to conduct yourself in an interview. They also discussed the unique challenges women experience in work and life, like dressing for your body, dealing with emotions, and the expectation that they play the role of caretaker for the family.
“There are things you can talk to another woman about that you probably wouldn’t talk to a male mentor about – just things he hasn’t experienced,” says Oby, who has faced similar situations in her own professional life. “That’s where the relationship forms, in those candid interactions with other women.”
By the February session, both Myonna and Linda had gotten their grades up, and were working hard on the other goals they had set together with “Miss Oby.”
“These sessions have gotten me started thinking about careers,” says Myonna. “I am working on setting financial goals, ways to get a good job, and how to present ourselves in a professional way.”
“I put my goal sheet on the refrigerator so I remember to stay on track,” says Linda. “I know that, next year, I can aim for higher goals.”
For Myonna, the sessions have helped her with her current job hunt: “I learned I can put volunteering on my resume, and to incorporate language from the job description into it when applying for a job.”
Oby is overjoyed to see her mentee’s progress, and reflected on how the experience has also been impactful for her. “While we are there to mentor them, they teach us something, too. They have taught me to always be in a learning state of mind. It’s an honor to be able to do this, and so rewarding to come back again and again.”
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