Dubai College was shortlisted for a 2023 International School Award. Cliona McMenamin, Head of Careers and teacher of Mathematics, explains the future pathways initiative that was recognised.
By Cliona McMenamin
The teenage years can be challenging for students and navigating them is not getting any easier. In addition to traditional difficulties, such as peer pressure and negative body image, new challenges like smart technology, cyber-bullying and mental health concerns, which have grown exponentially since COVID-19, can make things even tougher. These issues often arise at a critical juncture when young people are developing their unique identities and pursuing their aspirations.
During these emotionally difficult years, having a supportive mentor who can listen and guide them can make all the difference. This is the reason our collaboration with UK-based social enterprise Girls Out Loud came to fruition. We adopted their Big Sister coaching and mentoring programme to assist our girls in year 9 to navigate these challenges and build confidence and resilience for the future.
By carefully matching teenage girls with their mentors, the ability to forge strong working relationships from the outset of the programme is evident. The mentors act as positive role models, provide a safe and supportive space for girls to express their feelings and work through any emotional challenges they may be facing. They can offer academic guidance, set goals and assist in developing positive study habits ensuring success in school and beyond.
As teenage girls begin to think about their future careers, mentors can offer advice and support as they explore different options and develop the skills and knowledge they will need to pursue their goals.
“Having a supportive mentor who can listen and guide can make all the difference.”
Implementing the programme
Before implementing the programme, we recruit our band of Big Sister volunteers. We reach out to our parent body, alumni and local community through social media channels and, this year, we were lucky to have 19 fantastic women step up to support our students.
Our mentors were trained over a full-on weekend session; the women were so enthusiastic and committed, it was difficult not to get caught up in their excitement. Those who volunteered demonstrated 100% commitment to the programme and looked forward to meeting their Little Sisters.
Introductions between Big Sisters and the students begin with a ‘role model relay’, a dynamic, high-energy, fast-paced event which takes place off campus at a Dubai hotel. The objective is to give our girls access to some empowering female role models, each one a true inspiration.
From barristers to broadcasters, CEOs to consultants, lawyers to librarians, entrepreneurs to environmentalists, university professors to marketing directors and beyond, they were all represented this year. The girls got to listen to their stories then interact with them in a structured and supportive ‘speed dating’ style format.
Accompanying our students back to school after this event was a rewarding experience; the excitement and positivity from the students was palpable and a large proportion of the girls subsequently applied to become a Little Sister. Reading through their applications and selecting matches was difficult given that all the students had valid reasons for engaging with the programme. With only 19 volunteers this year, the opportunities were limited but, for those selected, extremely impactful. The matching process for the 19 students was conducted with great attention. Given the length of time the Big and Little Sisters spend together throughout the course of the project, the match has to be right.
The commitment involves each Big and Little Sister meeting for one hour per month for a one-to-one mentoring session. This takes place within school time, in a safe and supportive environment. In addition to these mentoring sessions there are four additional workshops that are attended by all the Big and Little Sisters.
Photo: Big and Little Sisters
The first workshop is The Girl Code. This is a two-hour hard-hitting workshop focusing on the three core challenges facing teen girls today: body confidence, healthy relationships and online safety. It allows the girls to engage in open debate around these topics with their peers and their Big Sisters. The Little Sisters find their voices and discuss their ideas within the group. In this year’s Girl Code workshop, there was plenty of evidence of rapport being built between the mentors and mentees. The workshop is followed by one-to-one mentoring sessions for the Little Sisters to discuss their experiences from the event with their Big Sisters.
The second workshop is Mindfulness which involves a morning of bonding between Big and Little Sisters through mindfulness and yoga. The workshop introduces all participants to the art of being present, including meditations and guided visualisation techniques. Discussions centre around the benefits of mindful focus, and of relaxation and wellbeing.
This year’s third workshop saw our girls and their mentors travel to PricewaterhouseCooper’s Academy Middle East for a workplace visit, where four women discussed their career journeys. This was followed by an interactive #iamremarkable workshop where the Big and Little Sisters work together to realise their own worth. It is inspiring to see the girls engage with industry professionals, gain more insights into the working world and to realise that they are each remarkable just the way they are!
The final event is the graduation which takes place in May as the year-long programme ends. This is an opportunity for the Big and Little Sisters to celebrate together their journey of mentoring and support. It’s designed to be an empowering event for all, with plenty of thanks, shared journeys and a platform for all of the goodbyes.
We believe that by introducing the girls to this diverse group of female role models, who have journeys to share and wisdom to impart, we can help them change the narrative, harness their potential and find their voice for their future pathways.
Implementing a mentoring programme
- Start recruiting volunteers early and recruit more than required to allow for changes in circumstances.
- Ensure that all volunteers know the time commitments in advance and stick to these dates so that they can organise their work schedule.
- Form a collaborative team to run the programme but ensure that all staff are aware of the aims and objectives to ensure buy-in and sustainability.
- Get feedback from volunteers, school staff, students and parents at regular intervals to ensure that you are providing a programme that is relevant and interesting.