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Supporting Greatness in Women Students

The University of Toronto's Status of Women Office was established in 1984 in order to identify and remove barriers and inequities experienced by all women students, staff, and faculty at all three University of Toronto campuses (St. George, Scarborough, and Mississauga). The office also promotes policy development in areas of particular relevance to women and is under the charge of Connie Guberman, whose main role is to be a "catalyst for change" at the university.

One function of the University of Toronto's Status of Women Office is to help female students succeed in their academic endeavours and foster the confidence and skills necessary for continued success once they leave campus. To this end, the Status of Women Mentor Program was initiated as a 3-year pilot project in the 2001-02 school year and works toward two objectives. First, it opens women's access to the demonstrated benefits of mentoring, given that it is a mechanism currently in place both within and outside the university that contributes to success. This includes increasing the university community's awareness of the importance of informal networks as resources for students. And second, the program establishes and promotes an academic support network for women students by increasing communication opportunities for women from under-represented groups.

Although there are over two dozen student mentor programs currently available at the University of Toronto, this particular program is different in that it focuses on reaching out to those female students who feel they have been overlooked and forgotten on campus. (See the Status of Women Office 1999/2000 Annual Report , under "Activities and Priorities.")

Who Is Eligible?

From the program's inception, female students have been eligible as long as they are in their second undergraduate year or higher, all the way to PhD students. Students also must consider themselves marginalized from, or under-represented in, the general student population in some way, based on their religion, race, language, disability, sexual orientation, age, family situation, and so on. The program helps marginalized women students negotiate their way though academia and beyond by pairing them up with a University of Toronto woman faculty member to help them with educational and career choices. Currently the program has 51 mentees: 31 undergraduates and 20 graduate students.

Application forms for the program are available online and are distributed at various student orientation sites across campus in early September. In addition, campus student groups, University of Toronto colleges, and other student services are responsible for disseminating information about the program.

Matching Process

The Status of Women Office makes every effort to connect female students with female faculty members early in the academic year. The mentee application form, due in late September, allows students to indicate their academic focus, to self-identify as they choose (e.g., religion, language, culture, or sexual orientation.), and to indicate which factor(s) they would like in common with a mentor.

For example, having a mentor who is also a parent or is from the same cultural background might be important for students so they can gain knowledge from someone with similar experiences. Mentees can also request to be paired with mentors who share the same academic interests or are employed in positions similar to the mentee's aspirations. The mentors are selected from both current and retired University of Toronto faculty.

By building women's support networks and establishing connections between a variety of University of Toronto women, both on a one-to-one basis and as a group of people, the program works to create a community of women on campus. Both mentees and mentors have stated that the program addresses the unmet need for minority and/or marginalized women students to have a mentor during their academic years at the university. And the positive effects of this program are obvious in the feedback received from past and present participants.

For example, one mentee in the program, when updating the coordinator on her mentor relationship, wrote in an e-mail that her mentor "has invited me to many of her professional dinners to meet her colleagues and involved me in the [career-focused] circle here in Toronto. She calls me every week to see how I am doing. I really appreciate her perspectives ... and I feel very fortunate to have her as my mentor."

Through the completion of evaluation forms, administered at the end of each year's program, several mentees commented that the program helped them feel "less anonymous" and "less isolated" on campus. In the 2002-03 year mentees commented on how being in the program offered them a sense of connection both to the university and to the faculty and their peers.

One student commented that she "[has] been encouraged and felt connected and 'plugged-in' by being part of this experience," and another stated, "To dialogue with other students who have had similar experiences really made me feel less alone. The dialogues with my mentor gave me a perspective into certain aspects of the workings and politics of academia and ultimately did influence some major decisions." This kind of feedback goes a long way toward identifying the needs these students have. And although the 2003-04 program is currently active, student mentees have already stated that having a mentor made available to them "makes the pressure of being a student a little less lonely."

Mentoring Is a Two-Way Street

The rewards of the program extend to the mentors as well. Both past and present mentors have reaped the benefits of having a female student talk with them about their own questions and ideas. Gathered from the evaluation forms from past years of the program, one faculty member wrote, "In fact, I feel that I have learned as much from [my mentee] as she may have learned from me." Another wrote, "An unexpected benefit of being a mentor was having the opportunity to connect some of my academic work with the realities of her world. She made me think a lot about the work I am doing."

The program has even helped the some mentors reflect on how effective they are as supervisors, with one mentor stating, "It's important to note ... that this has been a 2-way street. I have listened actively to her, and learned about her perspective on many issues. As a result I hope that I am a more sensitive graduate supervisor."

Future Plans

Continuing to build women's support networks and establishing connections between women across all three University of Toronto campuses is an ongoing goal of the Status of Women Office. Currently located in and run by the Status of Women Office on the St. George campus of the University of Toronto, future plans for the Mentoring Program include finding a permanent home for it once the pilot project ends in April 2004. Currently operating on a one-on-one mentee-mentor relationship, the program is also looking into incorporating other types of mentor relationships. For example, setting up mentor groups where several students could meet with one or two faculty members in a group to discuss common questions and to learn from each other's experiences is a future possibility.

Readers interested in finding out more about the program can visit its Web site. Any member of the University of Toronto community is welcome to contact the office with concerns, complaints, issues, or ideas. The office supplies information on policies, procedures, resources, services, statistics, and initiatives regarding women and women's issues at the university and provides confidential assistance to anyone experiencing a problem that may be related to gender, sexism, or heterosexism.

Necole Sommersell is the Coordinator of the Status of Women Office Mentor Program at the University of Toronto.