On March 4, The Diana Center was buzzing with the voices of college students and professional women from throughout New York City. The first session of Mentor It Forward, a citywide program created by Barnard College and the NYC Commission on Women’s Issues, was about to begin. Fifty accomplished women, all leaders in their fields, had volunteered their morning to advise the same number of eager undergraduates on how to begin their careers. Mentors were grouped according to their specific fields; each paired with a mentee for eight minutes, a bell signaled when the time was up, then the student would move down one seat to the next mentor for another advice session. Over the course of an hour, the mentors offered individual insight and shared experiences with as many as seven different students.
Before the actual mentoring sessions began, the participants enjoyed a catered breakfast in The Diana Center Event Oval, as they gathered with hundreds of prominent New Yorkers for the official NYC opening event of Women’s History Month. The morning was kicked off by Barnard College President Debora Spar, NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg, WCBS News anchor Cindy Hsu, and the NYC Commission on Women’s Issues Chair Anne Sutherland Fuchs. Spar underscored the importance of mentorship and its correlation with success. She told the crowd that the innovative program was designed to bring mentoring up-to-date and advised students to look for a variety of mentors and types of mentoring relationships; urging them to get as much advice as they can and find out what works for them. Spar recalled some of the influential mentors she encountered over the years as she rose through the academic ranks, from older academics who supported her every move, to two colleagues who were so tough on her that she didn’t see them as mentors until years later—when she realized they were the people who would never let her fail.
“A city is only as strong as the health and success of its women,” said Mayor Bloomberg. The speed mentoring program was, as he described it, a way to link college students to “a certain caliber of professional whom they’ve never had access to before,” in a format that would accommodate the busy lives of those professionals who might not otherwise have the time to mentor young women. “Our aim here is to create a pipeline that will produce leaders and pioneers,” said Bloomberg. And in the midst of so many bright women, the mayor, known for his flashes of wit, went on to observe dryly, “Academically, I was one of the members of the class who made the top half of the class possible.”
“How many people here have tried speed dating?” asked Cindy Hsu, invoking a popular analogy for the “speed mentoring” program about to begin. “I’ve tried it, and I’m just going to tell you: we’re going to have much more effective results today.”
“Needless to say there won’t be much time for small talk,” observed Anne Sutherland Fuchs, chair of the women’s commission, which worked with Barnard College Communications and NYC Service (a mayoral program that links volunteers with the organizations that need them) to coordinate the event in observance of Women’s History Month. “The mentees will just have to dive right in and start peppering the mentors with [questions on] how to succeed,” she advised.
For the sessions, mentors were divided into four groups: health, medicine, science and technology; law, public service, and government; finance, business, communications, media, and marketing; and nonprofit, education, art, and culture. Among the mentors were Marianne J. Harkin, a director at NYU Langone Medical Center; ABC News correspondent Lynn Sherr; First Deputy Mayor of New York City Patricia Harris; former Vice- Chair and CFO of Con Edison Joan Freilich ’63; Jemina Bernard, executive director, Teach For America, New York region; Dean of Admissions Jennifer Gill Fondiller ’88; Ann Whitney Olin Professor of Professional Practice in Architecture and Chair of the department of architecture Karen Fairbanks; and Director of the Barnard Center for Research on Women and Interim Associate Dean of Faculty Diversity Janet Jakobsen.
Each undergraduate had been pre- assigned to a category based on her interests. At each eight-minute interval, Vivian Taylor, chief of staff and vice president for community development at Barnard, rang the bell, calling, “Mentor it forward! It is time to move!”
The 50 undergraduates hailed from the colleges participating in the Mayor’s College Challenge Program, a citywide initiative (of which Barnard is a part) to encourage college students, faculty, and staff to make a positive impact by volunteering in the community. The mentees went on to become mentors themselves, starting on April 17 at the NYC Young Women’s Volunteer Summit where they met with high school students to advise them on what to expect when they get to college. “We’re going to take this program around the city. We want to have it in every borough and every neighborhood,” said Sutherland Fuchs.
After the event at Barnard, both mentors and mentees agreed that the event had exceeded their expectations. “I thought it was great. The sessions were easy and smooth, and all the women were really articulate and gave great advice,” said Dana Bacharach ’13, from Portland, Ore. For Anna Steffens ’10, one the best things the mentors were able to convey to her was a stronger sense of confidence about the future. “One mentor assured me, ‘Don’t worry, you’re going to get a job; it’s going to happen. Put all your energy into enjoying yourself and cultivating your passion.’ It was really great to have that boost of confidence from someone who had been there.”
“It was awesome,” concluded Diahann Billings-Burford, chief service officer of NYC Service. “I was really impressed by the caliber of [both groups].... Our city’s greatest resource is its people.”
-by Wesley Yang, photographs by Dorothy Hong and David Wentworth