Latina Sorority Mentors Junior High Girls
Seventh and eighth grade girls are prepared for the college experience
by Marion Harmon
On a late Friday afternoon in March, an active discussion about labor leader Cesar Chavez was taking place in the Cross Cultural Leadership Center (CCLC) on the Chico State campus. Considering the location and the time of year—two weeks before the state’s annual celebration of the civil rights activist’s life—this was not an unusual scene.
What set it apart from an average Friday on campus were its participants—nine girls from Gerber School, each paired with a sorority mentor from Chico State’s Lambda Theta Nu. Their lively discussion focused on leadership—who did the girls consider leaders, what are the qualities of a leader, can young people be leaders. This was one in a yearlong series of meetings they had participated in as part of the Latina Leadership Program. CCLC staffer and Lambda Theta Nu member Cindy Melendrez led the discussion.
“Chavez’s parents took him out of school, but education was really important to him,” said Melendrez. “He was in the Bracero Program—has anyone heard of it?” One sorority mentor shared that her grandfather was in the program. Melendrez told them of the bad labor conditions braceros worked under and how Chavez coordinated groups in the community. “He had a lot of leadership skills, and his biggest were organizing and inspiring people,” she said. “A lot of laws that we have are thanks to Chavez.” Group leader Mayra Mendez added: “He was a firm believer in education, and he told kids it is important to stay in school.”
After a short discussion, the group saw a video about Chavez and Dolores Huerta during the Delano grape strike of 1965. The girls then split into two groups to do research on the CCLC computers about Dolores Huerta and Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
This afternoon session has been a monthly occurrence on the Chico State campus since 2009, when the Tehama County Mentoring Program joined forces with Lambda Theta Nu to form the Latina Leadership Program. During the fall and spring semesters, up to 10 seventh- and eighth-grade girls from Gerber School are matched with 10 Lambda Theta Nus. Each month, the girls meet their mentors on the Chico State campus to learn about the college experience, prepare for admittance to college, and develop leadership skills.
“My No. 1 goal is to have them feel confident on a college campus,” says Tehama County Mentor Program Coordinator Melissa Mendonca. “I want them to feel like it belongs to them—to have them feel like college is absolutely in their reach and that they will be successful at it.”
The small town of Gerber has a population of just over 1,000 people, and about 50 percent are Hispanic or Latino. It’s rather isolated, notes Mendonca (in photo above surrounded by Lambda Theta Nu mentors and Gerber School students), and one of the poorest areas in the county.
Lambda Theta Nu is a national collegiate sorority with a mission to promote and foster Latina leaders through educational and professional development, relationship building, and community involvement. Founded at Chico State in 1985 by a small group of Latina women, it has grown to 24 chapters.
When Mendonca contacted the sorority chair three years ago and asked if their members would consider developing a mentor program with her, they said they would love to participate. “We all sat down and hammered out how it would look,” recalls Mendonca.
These college students give more than just their time to these junior high girls, says Mendonca; they have always been professional and eager and prepared. They do most of the organizing, and sometimes they choose the topics. “They have just gone above and beyond,” says Mendonca.
Mendez, sorority team leader for the mentoring program, comes up with an agenda for each meeting. Early in the year, she plans activities, so the girls and their mentors can get to know each other. She tries to pair mentors with mentees who have similar interests.
“This year it was perfect—each mentee was paired up with her mentor perfectly, and every time they would meet, they clicked,” says Mendez. “They would talk about how they were doing in school and in general, and then we would get into the workshop.”
What makes the program successful is that the girls see themselves in the college students, says Mendonca. “They seem to have many similar experiences and cultural backgrounds,” she notes. “So that is really the magic—that the girls can see themselves in the mentors.”
The sorority members also find things out about their own path. “The program has definitely changed my mindset and what group of students I want to work with,” notes Mendez. “Before, I wanted to work in higher education, and now I want to work with grade school and middle school students. I feel that, with this age group, if you expose them more, they take in more.”
At their March get-together, Mendez asked “Can 12-to-14-year-olds make a difference?” She played a YouTube video from the 1992 UN Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, where 12-year-old Severn Suzuki gave a speech to 152 world leaders. Mendez said the video, known as “The Girl Who Silenced the World for 5 Minutes,” went viral.
Mendez asked the girls what leadership skills Suzuki exhibited. Facilitating their discussion were Mendonca and Melendrez. “Even though she was a child, she wasn’t scared,” Mendez told the group. “Despite age, gender, race—anyone can be a leader, like Martin Luther King Jr., Harriet Tubman, and Cesar Chavez.”
What strikes Mendez is how energetic these groups of girls have been and how easy it has been to get them engaged. “I hope that I can help them make better decisions for their lives,” she says. “I hope that by the time they are in high school, they will know what they really want to do and what they are passionate about.”
(BA, Recreation Administration, ’82), a former firefighter/EMT, is an insurance agent with New York Life in San Diego.
(BA, Journalism, ’01) is a partner at FSB Core Strategies, a public relations firm in Sacramento.
(MA, Kinesiology, ’06) is the head athletic trainer at Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo.