Webb Middle School

GirlAdvocates! President Lauren Caton eats lunch with her mentee Ashley Ortiz at Webb Middle School on Friday afternoon.

Photo Credit: Claire Trammel | Daily Texan Staff

While many of her fellow classmates were concerning themselves with J2’s ever-changing menu, nutrition junior Lauren Caton, the founder and current president of GirlAdvocates! was seeking out UT students to join her in an effort to reform societal standards. 

GirlAdvocates! is a UT organization focused on empowering young girls through education, positive self-image and health. Like many young girls, Caton experienced a lack of self-confidence during her adolescent years, which led to a desire for guidance and need for support. She was able to emerge from her negative experiences with a goal in mind.  

“These experiences helped me realize how much support one needs during this vulnerable time period,” Caton said. “Since then, I have always been passionate about helping young adolescent girls develop their potential.”

The members of the organization serve as mentors for girls in the sixth, seventh or eigth grade at Webb Middle School. Mentors have to go through a training session with Austin Partners in Education, which fosters volunteer-driven mentoring programs in Austin Independent School District. The sessions help the mentors improve their communication skills.

“[We] try to be on their level so they think of us as peers, not teachers,” GirlAdvocates! Vice President Anna Marie Pratas said. “Potential members must understand that it is an open discussion with the mentees.” 

While participating in GirlAdvocates!, members become role models and friends with their mentees, meeting in weekly mentor lunches. On any given Friday, Caton, along with two or three other members, drive to the middle school around noon. They often promise their mentees the week prior that they will bring Chick-fil-A or candy with them to their next visit.

GirlAdvocates! makes an effort to introduce the girls to the concept of going to college. By tuning them in at a young age, GirlAdvocates! hopes to inspire them to consider it a feasible option. 

Caton and her mentee Ashley Ortiz frequently talk about the UT campus, and more recently, Ortiz’s application for Breakthrough Austin, a local summer program that helps to prepare students for college. Ortiz is interested in the college experience. While the art school sparked her curiosity, she was quick to bring up an interest in chemistry.

Caton and her fellow mentors make an effort to be there for the girls every week. Role models do not come in the form of acquaintances — they form through consistent exposure and reliable support. GirlAdvocates! takes pride in creating and fostering these relationships in an attempt to prevent the negativity that Caton and so many others dealt with during these same impressionable years.

Fifty-three students of Webb Middle School, a local Austin school with a high proportion of students from low-income families, toured UT and learned about its application process and monetary requirements in a session held Friday.

The Neighborhood Longhorns Program, an extension of the UT Outreach program, hosted the session in partnership with volunteers from Beta Upsilon Chi, a Christian fraternity. Students from the middle school first listened to speakers about what is required to attend UT and to fund their education, as well as the value of a UT degree. After taking a tour of campus with fraternity volunteers, they asked questions of fraternity members about campus life. 

Samuel Rhea, a member of Beta Upsilon Chi and board member for the Neighborhood Longhorns Program, said he volunteered his fraternity’s support and was excited his fraternity could be a part of the program’s first session of this kind.

Jeff Jones, Outreach Center Counselor for Neighborhood Longhorns Program, agreed. He said his program aims to work with both elementary schoolers and middle schoolers, but middle schools are underrepresented in their programs.

“We have a lot of stuff for elementary schools, but we wanted more stuff for middle schools,” Jones said. “We want to get them thinking about colleges.”

Anastasia Eckhart, an AISD teacher who accompanied students, said they were excited about the idea of attending college after the trip.

“They were never [before] given that opportunity to go through all of the buildings and the dorms and go through Gregory Gymnasium and sit in a small group,” Eckhart said. “I don’t think any of them [have] a parent who has a college degree.”

Eckhart said Patrick Patterson, executive director of UT Outreach Austin, particularly inspired her students.

“The way that he opened up he was like, ‘What if I told you there was [about a million] dollars sitting around the corner?’” she said. “He explained that his parents didn’t have more than a sixth grade education ... and that for the first eight years out of high school, he went to college and it wasn’t a party. He studied.”

Eckhart said he told her students that his college education helped him toward a better life.

“The kids really related to him,” she said. “[They] really loved what he had to say.”

Webb Middle school was originally going to attend the session with other Title I middle schools in the Austin area, but those middle schools were forced to back out because of standardized testing on Friday.

Eckhart said she would like to see a similar program visit middle schools in the Austin community.

“Not every school has the capability [to come out],” she said.

Still, Eckhart said she was glad Webb students could attend the program.

“The thing that really stuck is that now, they’re so excited about going to college, they’re sad that they’re only in middle school,” Eckhart said. “That it sucks they have to wait to get there, because they’re so excited to be there.”

Published on March 4, 2013 as "'Neighborhood' program inspires young students".