How The Girls’ Network is offering Tees students the chance to learn from inspiring local businesswomen.
With golden envelopes in front of them, students at Stockton Riverside College, Redcar and Cleveland College and Bede Sixth Form excitedly wait to read what’s inside.
The young women are about to be introduced to their mentors for the very first time as part of a project to help inspire bright futures across the Tees Valley.
The Education Training Collective (Etc.) is working with The Girls’ Network to offer its students the chance to learn from inspiring women in professions they may not ordinarily see in their everyday lives.
“The Tees Valley is not short of these women, so this is about making connections between them and students,” said Rosalind Stuart, who is heading up the network locally.
Putting the call out for willing mentors, she said: “We have been overwhelmed by these amazing women who have stepped forward to get involved.”
Students at the colleges that make up the Etc. are both happy and a little nervous to be among the first to be matched with mentors so far. It’s not just similarities between profession and aspiration that make a good match.
“It can also be about personality, likes and dislikes or similar backgrounds,” Rosalind explained.
What stands out for Redcar and Cleveland College student Kelsey Therford upon opening her letter is that “we seem to have a lot of the same interests”, the main ones being watching Netflix and loving animals.
It seems to put the health and social care student immediately at ease as she starts planning her own introductory letter to her mentor.
“I was a bit nervous at first,” said the 16-year-old from Redcar. “But I am just excited now.”
Her response seems to be one that is echoed around the room as the girls read their own letters and begin to recognise what makes them and their mentors a potential match.
Childcare student Teegan McLoughlin, 18, said: “I’m definitely happy with who I have got.”
Again, watching Netflix seems to have created some common ground, but she also added: “She is in a running club and I used to run.”
Now looking forward to getting to know her mentor, she said: “I think it’s going to be a really good experience and it makes you feel inspired.”
The opening of those golden envelopes is repeated at Stockton Riverside College and then Bede Sixth Form in Billingham. The students would normally get to meet their mentors in person, but Covid-19 and social distancing guidelines means, for now, the mentoring scheme will take place online.
Stockton Riverside College student Mia Thomson said: “Mentoring isn’t something I had heard of before, but when I got to know more, it sounded ideal.”
Not short of role models in her life, the 17-year-old explained: “I have a lot of strong independent women in my family but it will be nice to have that extra support there, someone who isn’t part of my family or college life.”
That’s the idea behind this initiative, and indeed part of the ethos that makes up The Girls’ Network, a national charity that aims to inspire and empower girls aged 14 to 19 from less advantaged communities.
Rosalind said: “These women are not in the girls’ family or schools and we have found there’s something about talking to someone from outside of those structures that makes the girls open up.”
Bede student Zakiyya Kamran, 17, said: “It’s a bit daunting to meet your mentor but also exciting and something I’m looking forward to. It’s such a great opportunity and a great way to encourage you.”
Excited to get started, Abbie Simmons, 18, added: “A lot of people don’t get an opportunity like this. It’s a great idea and I think it will help me feel more confident in myself.”
Redcar and Cleveland College student Amber Thorpe agrees. Studying childcare, the 19-year-old from Saltburn counts herself as lucky to be in the right place at the right time to access the programme.
She said: “I think it’s an amazing opportunity to gain confidence and knowledge and to reach our future goals.”
The Girls’ Network Tees Valley project has been funded by the Tees Valley Combined Authority and is driven by Teesside University’s pro-vice chancellor for enterprise and business engagement, Professor Jane Turner OBE DL.
She said: “We have a moral obligation to do everything we can to make sure the young women of our region are enabled to build the futures they deserve. Now more than ever, the young women of our region need our support and mentoring is a very powerful support vehicle.”
Justine Foxcroft is among the first batch of Tees Valley mentors to volunteer her time and expertise.
Change officer at Darlington Building Society, she said: “When I read about this opportunity it just screamed at me. I know that when I left education and moved into work 10 years ago this is something that could have really benefited me.”
Not having previously considered herself particularly ambitious, it took a couple of attempts to find the job she now loves and which has led to her drive to achieve.
What she is keen to share, though, is that in working life, every experience, even those aspects you don’t enjoy, offer something to learn from.
As a mentor, she said: “I want to be that positive person around work and ultimately I want my mentee to go to work because they enjoy what they do, not just because they have bills to pay!”
Happy to be bringing this opportunity to their students, the Etc.’s director of marketing Erika Marshall said: “Raising the aspirations and ambitions of all our young people is a priority at the Etc.
“We can’t wait to see what the future holds for these students who, through their mentors and The Girls’ Network, are already tapping into a wealth of knowledge and building the most fantastic links that will no doubt help their careers to flourish.”