Amanda Gurley, a junior at South Lakes High School, sat outside one of the school’s trailers Friday with a small group of freshmen girls she’d just met.
Amanda, a well-established student, was trying to strike up friendships — not always easy in high school.
She sought common ground, but the conversation sputtered. It was like talking through a sheet of ice. Not much was getting through.
Somehow Amanda’s birthday came up. She told the girls she was turning 17 on Nov. 21.
“What?” shouted one of the freshman girls, Daniella Haene. “That’s my birthday.”
The ice had officially broken.
In a matter of seconds, the students were talking like old friends. The freshmen girls, all 14, wanted Amanda’s opinion about teachers they liked and didn’t like. They told her about clubs they wanted to join and the sports they hoped to play.
“I’m going to join the step team,” said Tiya Thompson, one of the freshmen students Amanda was getting to know.
A FEW YARDS AWAY, James Parnham sat with a similar group of freshmen. The senior quickly found out that two people in his group were learning to play the guitar.
“You any good?” he asked Jenny Zhan, who told the group she’d been playing for a while.
“I guess,” said Jenny, who had moved to Reston two years ago from Dallas, Texas.
“Does that make you a Cowboys fan?” asked another group member and fellow freshman William Wacker.
Jenny said she wasn’t sure, admitting she didn’t watch football very often. James, one of about 100 upperclassmen who volunteered to be mentors in South Lakes’ student-to-student mentoring program, offered his first bit of advice: become a Washington Redskins fan.
FOR THREE YEARS at South Lakes, every freshman has been assigned a mentor, a junior or senior who can be a friend, answer questions and assuage anxieties associated with transitioning into high school.
At a training session last week, Lindsay Trout, assistant director of student activities and a leadership teacher at South Lakes, spoke to the prospective mentors about the role they would play during the year.
“It’s so easy to make a huge impression,” said Trout. Through a series of anecdotes from previous years, Trout showed the mentors that saying “hi” in the halls could be enough to make a freshman’s day.
“Say ‘what’s up’ to them,” said Trout. “You have the potential to change these people’s lives.”
Being a role model starts with being honest, said Trout. She urged the mentors to reflect back on their freshman year and talk about it. “Tell them you were terrified, if you were terrified,” said Trout. “If homework hit you like a Mack truck, talk about that.”
Trout, a South Lakes alumna who created the program, originally thought up the idea to improve “connectivity” at the school.
“The objective of the program is to ease the transition into high school, which is such a critical time for teenagers,” said Trout.
BUT STATISTICS kept on the program are showing it does much more. According to Trout, since the program’s inception, student grades have improved. Absences, tardiness and classroom disturbances have declined. “And the results are so widespread,” said Trout, noting all the social and academic benefits.
While she knows the program is having a positive effect, she said she still battles with another question: who gets more out of the program: mentors or mentees?
“This is the only program of its kind in all of Fairfax County — in the state of Virginia as far as I’m aware,” said Trout.
This year, Trout is really excited because it’s the first year former freshmen mentees have the opportunity to become mentors. “That’s when they say you see the biggest difference,” said Trout.
MANY JUNIORS said they applied for the mentoring program because of the impact it had when they were freshmen. To be eligible, mentors must receive a recommendation from a teacher.
“[My mentor] showed me around the school and encouraged me to join clubs and do sports,” said Maritza Vasquez, a junior who will be a mentor this year. “When we saw each other in the halls, she made it a point to talk to me. It made me feel welcome.”
When junior Rakinya Raveendran started high school at South Lakes she remembers worrying about the elevated workload. “I had heard high school was hard,” she said.
Rakinya’s mentor happened to be a straight-A student who helped her manage her time and develop good work habits. The cookies on her birthday were nice, too, said Rakinya.
“I’d like to have a personal relationship like that [with my mentees],” she said.
ABOUT TEN executive mentors, like seniors Christina Alifrangis and Luc Restivo, help oversee the program, providing program support and assisting mentors.
Christina, a mentor last year, said she remembers having worries before starting her freshman year. “I joined [the mentor program] specifically because I remember what it was like as a freshman,” said Christina, who admitted she was shy. “Having someone you know who is older and is looking out after you is really a great thing.”