Photo courtesy of Nora Viñas (C’17)
By Vanessa Moss
“We wouldn’t have these programs if it hadn’t been for Nora.”
Robin Hille Michaels, the assistant director of the Office of Civic Engagement and head of Sewanee’s Bonner Scholars and Canale Interns program, continued to describe the multiple mentoring programs Sewanee has with community partners: “Everything is an offshoot of what she started.”
Nora Viñas (C’17) is one of the handful of Bonner Scholars graduating this May, the second generation of students to complete the four-year commitment to their service internships. Her freshman year, Viñas was assigned an internship site as a college counselor for the seniors of Franklin County High School (FCHS). But with her battle scars from wars with FAFSA and the Common Application still very raw and exposed from her own senior year, her first visit to FCHS made her realize that college counseling was not for her. Instead, as she waited with her fellow interns for a student to approach their long table of what looked like suspiciously sweetfaced and eager-to-help judges, she passed her time with people-watching. As she waited and watched the crowd, she noticed many small, shy-looking girls pass by and the word “divas” popped into her head.
DIVAS was a youth empowerment program Viñas participated in during middle school. After seeing so many girls timidly walking around the cafeteria, she realized that there were many young women at FCHS who could excel with an empowerment program to encourage them. She proposed the idea to the office of Civic Engagement, then she pitched it to FCHS. After the necessary green lights were given, Viñas was off.
She had a group of seven girls, who met weekly during a half-hour lunch period. For the first two years, Viñas planned each meeting’s weekly, goal-oriented curriculum. “I wanted them to think about their future, and to realize that what they do as a freshman will affect what happens later,” Viñas says.
The program focuses on what is prevalent in the girls’ lives at the time. Viñas recalled, “I’d ask them, ‘What do you want to talk about, what is going on?’ For example, bullying was a big issue freshman year, so we’d talk about bullies. I’d pull up strategies on how to not let bullying affect you. I could tailor each lesson to their needs and to what skillsets they felt they needed to learn.”
As a freshman at Sewanee, each mentor would get a selected group of high school freshman DIVAS, and both mentors and students would ideally go through their respective high school and college years together. “DIVAS” represented what the goals for both the students and the mentors were: to become Dreamers, to be Independent, to feel Valuable, to be Ambitious, and to be Strong. Although the acronym changed in the fall of 2015 when the office of Civic Engagement reformed DIVAS and it’s many off-shoots (DIVAS at South Pittsburg High School, Grundy County High School’s Women Empowerment Luncheon, Students Tackling Issues ‘N’ Grundy, and Man-Up at GCHS), the sentiment of “DIVAS” remains.
The purpose of DIVAS wasn’t solely based around the acronym. Ultimately, as Michaels explains, the program meant to “put an energy and focus onto young women who maybe didn’t have that given to them before. So they didn’t really have an idea of who they could be, and what their life might look like.” The transition from DIVAS to CORE (Connecting Others, Respecting Each-other), and adopting Respect Institute curriculum for all of Sewanee’s counseling programs, has mentors and students exploring “[the] idea of what it means to respect yourself, to respect others, to have healthy relationships, and have a hope and vision for themselves in the future.”
CORE is the combination of the women’s empowerment groups at Franklin County, Grundy County, and South Pittsburg high schools. With those and Man-Up—a men’s empowerment group founded by Julian (Jewlz) Humphrey-Davis (C’16)—following the same curriculum, collaboration between the university and the previously mentioned community partners is simplified, making the possibilities of expanding and improving CORE more realistic.
Now Viñas addresses that previously-dreaded college counseling. She not only sees these students to the end of their time at FCHS, but she contributes in an amazing amount of effort into seeing them off with confidence in what whatever will follow their graduation.
Nora Viñas went down the mountain last week for her half-hour meeting with her mentees—who she lovingly calls “her girls”—to discover that two of them are graduating early, and a third had the option to but decided instead to commit to half-days for her last school year.
“I don’t think I had much to do with it, because it’s all their hard work. But I do think that being the constant voice saying ‘Hey, what are you doing next?’, ‘Hey, do we have a plan?’, and Hey, how are your grades?’ gave them some more drive to remain focused.” Viñas’s face lit up with joy when she expressed how incredibly proud she was of all of them, even through the sadness of seeing them go. Her voice quivered slightly as she said, “I’m their friend, above anything else. And that’s good.”