By Allison Ward
The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio.
Looking through Seventeen, Allure and other magazines, a group of seventh-grade girls at Walnut Springs Middle School ripped out pictures of singer Taylor Swift, actress Jennifer Lawrence and various fashion models.
The activity, during a lunchtime meeting of Chick Chat at the Westerville school, was designed to explore the media definition — and their own — of beauty.
Maria Slovikovski, a sophomore at nearby Otterbein University, leads the weekly gathering of 14 girls.
Other students from Otterbein run similar groups for sixth-graders (Girl Talk) and eighth-graders (Girls Are Really Awesome).
“Just because the media portray us as pretty doesn’t mean we’re perfect,” Slovikovski told the girls.
Such advice — coupled with information about trust, self-esteem and bullying — is what Slovikovski has offered the middle schoolers the past two years.
At age 19, though, she finds that she sometimes needs guidance, too.
Fortunately, she has a community mentor — Matina Zenios, president of a promotions business in Powell — who might help her with a LinkedIn profile; a job-shadowing idea; or a connection in public relations, her major.
So, just as Otterbein steered Slovikovski to Walnut Springs, the university introduced her to Zenios in February as part of the Otterbein Women’s Leadership Network (the NET), a mentoring program that involves training, education and networking.
“Women in general bring a lot of positive things to the table,” Zenios said. “There are stigmas that still kind of apply, mindsets that we’re not deserving of some things. The more confident women can become, the stronger their voices will be, the more successful they’ll be.
“This program is extremely powerful.”
The intergenerational system is intended to create and foster female leaders in central Ohio.
The program was founded in 2011 by Kathy Krendl, president of Otterbein, and other female staff members.
“We uncovered this idea that girls, college students and even women in corporate jobs still face very similar barriers as they try to move into leadership roles,” said Melissa Gilbert, associate dean of experiential learning.
“We learned that mentoring was the key to overcoming these barriers.”
Upon her arrival at Otterbein in 2009, Krendl was struck by its history in the fight for female equality.
Always, since its founding 168 years ago, Otterbein has admitted women on equal footing with men — among the first American colleges to do so.
“In 1847, this was kind of unheard of,” Krendl said. “I was the first woman president. It’s an interesting piece of history that made me think, ‘I have to do something around this.’??”
She decided to teach a freshman seminar (every first-year student takes one) called “Women and Leadership,” the crux of the mentoring program.
A grant from the Women’s Fund of Central Ohio helped fuel the project.
During the course, 15 to 20 female students learn skills to help overcome obstacles to female leadership — including male-dominated fields, the work-family balance and the “glass ceiling.”
The students begin their service at Walnut Springs. They are also paired with upperclassmen, their Sisters in Leadership, while taking the class.
About 100 students belong to the NET — including some who joined after their freshman year.
Most are matched as sophomores with mentors, who range from the president of YWCA Columbus to a dance instructor.
Each student and mentor meet at least once a semester, beyond the regular sharing of text messages and email.
The mentor is expected to work with the student through her senior year, Gilbert said.
“Their role shifts from helping with career development to, in the junior and senior years, the mentors helping students find internships,” she said. “After they graduate, … (the mentors) really become sponsors to help them find a job.”
As the first person in her family to graduate from college, in 2013, Casey Buckler of Galloway described her mentor, Debbie Johnson, as invaluable to her job search and subsequent career moves.
Twenty months after her graduation, Buckler still meets often with Johnson, an Upper Arlington city councilwoman, for dinner, coffee or shopping.
The two were matched in January 2012.
Buckler became stuck in her initial job search by applying only to “forever jobs.”
Johnson gave her great advice: “Take a risk.”
“It took some of the pressure off looking,” said Buckler, a human- resources coordinator for a pharmaceutical company.
“Being a little more open allowed me to make that decision to accept a position because it’s going to help me build on those skills.”
During a recent dinner chat, the pair discussed how women are never considered too old to have a mentor.
“We have that friendship,” said Buckler, 23. “We cheer each other on. We’re both stronger women leaders because of this relationship.”
The program, Johnson acknowledged, has also benefited her, providing a different perspective and allowing her to appreciate how millennials think.
“One of my passions is promoting women leadership,” she said. “The other thing I joke about is, I have children Casey’s age, and I love that someone is taking my advice.”
Women in the community also benefit from offerings — mixers, speakers, dinners — at which Otterbein brings together female leaders, Gilbert said.
The university, for example, regularly hosts events of the Women for Economic and Leadership Development, and the Columbus chapter of the National Association for Women Business Owners.
A summit planned for March is called “Women and Philanthropy.”
Each fall, Otterbein invites Walnut Springs girls to visit the campus for a day.
Chick Chat has allowed Liya Samuel, 13, to make friends in a positive environment, she said.
And fellow seventh-grader Sam Muller has learned to become a better friend.
“We learned about compliments and how giving compliments will make you feel good and make others feel good,” Muller said.
Although her schedule didn’t allow her to fill a mentoring role this school year, Otterbein junior Mary Reber said, she spent the past two years teaching “that being a girl is cool, that being a leader is cool.”
“You can only be a woman leader if you have confidence and support each other,” Reber said. ” What better time to start instilling that than in sixth grade?”
As a nursing student, she didn’t think she needed to become a leader until she took the class with Krendl.
“It completely changed my view. Any woman can have leadership — even one who takes care of patients all day.”
Her mentor, a nurse, has reaffirmed the idea.
The cyclical nature, Krendl said, relies on giving back.
“They can’t always benefit from those ahead of them. They have to be pulling the next generation along.”