Health Sciences student and SFU alumnus create mentorship program to support success for girls, young women
Fourth year Faculty of Health Sciences student Meghan Dunn and SFU alumnus Avneet Sandhu – together with their colleagues Emily Haugen and Leena Parhar – have big dreams. These four B.C. residents designed and launched a mentorship program to support grade 10 to 12 girls in being comfortable, confident, and connected as they transition to the future, whether that’s post-secondary schooling, the workforce, and/or something altogether different.
Dunn, Sandhu, Haugen and Parhar first met at the 2019 gathering of the Daughters of the Vote, an annual event hosted at the House of Commons in Ottawa by Equal Voice. The team of four applied for seed funding from Equal Voice to start a community project – they elected to create a mentorship program for girls and young women – She Connects – to address a gap that they themselves experienced. “We could have benefitted from a female mentorship program when we were in high school,” says Dunn. “Since we couldn’t have that, we want to facilitate that for other people.”
Sandhu adds: “I would have gained so much more if there was that guidance counselor going the extra mile for me or helping me decide what career path I wanted, or how post-secondary was going to look for me.”
Sandhu admits she struggled during her first two years at SFU, and that her experience from those years significantly impacted her mental health. For her, the ability of She Connects to support positive mental health for girls and young women is the most important aspect of the program.
Dunn, Sandhu, Haugen and Parhar designed She Connects to be a Canada-wide volunteer organization that connects female mentors with high school girls looking for advice, resources, and positive supports as they transition from high school into adult life. Mentors are screened carefully – all applicants must pass a criminal background check – and are provided with skills training through Mentor Canada before active conversations begin.
Mentors and mentees commit to spending two hours a month together, with the mentee being given the power to direct the conversations, using whatever modes of communication she prefers: text, video call, or phone, with an option for in-person meetings when pandemic conditions permit. All of the mentors have completed their training and are ready to start working with girls.
Although Dunn, Haugen, Parhar and Sandhu received the seed funding for She Connects in 2019, their busy lives didn’t allow them to launch the program until 2020 – just in time for the pandemic to pose numerous obstacles. They adapted their program for a virtual environment, as they were completely shut out of offering in-person presentations in high schools. Despite the limitations, the team were able to recruit 30 mentors from across Canada and had 15 girls sign up to be mentees. “Our goal was to start with about 10 mentees, so we're happy to have 15!” says Dunn.
Given the restrictions of the pandemic, the group is pleased to get as much traction as they have. Still, they are looking to increase the number of mentees participating in the program and hope that in the fall of 2021, they’ll be able to present virtually and hopefully face-to-face, in high schools. There have been challenges in gaining access to classrooms – school districts frequently use a unique process for requesting permission to engage with students – but the founders and their mentors are utilizing their connections and relationships to start conversations with administrators and build rapport.
Once their high school mentorship program is successfully established, the four founders of She Connects hope to expand the program in scope as well as size. They’ve already received requests from university students interested in exploring whether graduate studies might be a good pathway forward and have supported these individual requests where they can; however, Dunn, Sandhu, Haugen and Parhar are clear that their focus for the moment is on supporting girls in high school “We’re open to more ideas and expanding in the future,” says Sandhu, “there’s so much that we want to offer.”