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Finding Their Voices

Student-run "Sister to Sister" and "Boys Speak Out" Conferences held on campus
Susan Wright speaks with a middle school student
Susan Wright speaks with a local middle school student before delivering the welcome address at the February 2 "Sister to Sister" conference. (Photo by Hannah Beliakov '06)

Adolescent boys and girls face many emotional and social challenges, such as self-esteem, peer pressure, body image, and mental health. To address these issues, a group of Dartmouth students developed "Boys Speak Out" and "Sister to Sister" conferences for middle school students. Now in their fourth and fifth years, respectively, the conferences recently drew over 200 middle school students from nine schools in the Upper Valley region. On January 31 and February 2, middle school boys and girls spent the day with Dartmouth undergraduate and graduate students, discussing the social issues and challenges they confront at their formative age.

According to Xenia Markowitt, director of the Center for Women and Gender, the number of students and schools represented has increased every year, as of word of the program has spread. The conferences are sponsored by the Center for Women and Gender and numerous student groups and academic departments. This year, boys and girls in schools ranging from Waits River and Hartford, Vt., to Hanover and Washington, N.H., attended.

Quoting from Dr. Suess' (Theodor S. Geisel '25) Oh, the Places You'll Go, Susan Wright, wife of President James Wright and executive director of the Montgomery Endowment, welcomed both groups. "Congratulations! You're off to great places, you're off and away," she said. Wright thanked the Dartmouth students on this year's planning committee, as well as the events' charter organizers, Lola Adedokun '03 and Anthony Webb '03, who returned to Hanover to attend the conferences. Wright added, "I wish you a great day at a great place."

Founded by Heidi Williams '03, "Sister to Sister" began with a focus on encouraging girls to pursue careers in mathematics and science, while also providing emotional support for concerns not usually covered in the classroom. Inspired by the success of "Sister to Sister," Webb created a similar conference for middle school boys that gave them the opportunity to "speak out" on issues sometimes kept concealed. The 2006 planning committee included Nancy Aitcheson '06, Elkin Cabas '06, Maile Carter '06, Mike Guzman '06, Raina Hammel '07, Cameron Houser '07, Jennifer Krimm '06, Alisha Levine '07, Alison Reed '06, Amy Rolfvondenbaumen '07, David Sampayo '08, Nick Taranto '06, John Turner Th'07, and Chelsea Voake '06.

"I think it is of enormous value to these boys to be around service-minded young men of Dartmouth," says Jay Davis, who spoke at the "Boys Speak Out" summit. Davis is an instructor in education at Dartmouth and also taught at the Frances C. Richmond Middle School in Hanover. "Middle school boys need the opportunity to remove themselves from the often rigidly defined social structures of their own schools. 'Boys Speak Out' lets them say things that they might not risk in their own school culture."

Seventh-grade student Eric Guay and Matthew Mackey '08
Seventh-grade student Eric Guay listens to Nick Taranto '06 speak at the January 31 "Boys Speak Out" conference. Matthew Mackey '08 is in background. (Photo by Hannah Beliakov '06)

Abigail Baird, assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences, spoke at the "Sister to Sister" event. "This is a day that is about trying to instill personal power. The Dartmouth women who have organized this program are keenly aware of this and have put together programs where each girl can find something," she says.

Dartmouth undergraduate and graduate panelists offered personal anecdotes about the challenges they faced in middle school, such as learning disabilities, racial prejudice, depression and anxiety, body image, sexual orientation, and sexual assault.

"I'm already looking ahead to next year and thinking of ways to keep these events fresh and interesting," says discussion group member Cameron Houser '07. "I want to develop a follow-up program that guidance counselors can use. It would offer daily opportunities to discuss these kinds of issues. I don't want them to forget what they learned here."


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Last Updated: 12/17/08