With lunch just minutes away, 20 fourth and fifth graders were doing their best to sit still.
Collean Trotter had gathered them in a semi circle on the floor. The Duke University junior encouraged the girls to slow their breathing and let their thoughts slip away as calming music played in the background.
Some were serene. Others fought the urge to fidget and lost.
Several stole covert glances at the plates of food being carried to the table on the other side of the room.
At last, Trotter told the girls to open their eyes, ending the meditation session and beginning a discussion about self-care and stillness in the face of stress and anxiety. She asked who might try meditating at home. Hands shot up.
It was spa day at Future is Now, a mentorship program run by Duke students for girls in Durham schools.
The afternoon required hours of preparation, but for Naa Adoley Allotey, the girls’ reactions make the time worthwhile.
“Mentors play such big roles in all of our lives and in us getting here, so it’s a way to pay that forward,” she said.
“We wouldn’t be where we are without mentors,” said the group’s president, Imari Smith. “It’s a way to give back.”
The girls kicked off the afternoon by making homemade salt scrubs to exfoliate their hands. Then, they picked out their favorite nail polish colors and held out their fingers to their mentors-turned-manicurists.
Thoroughly pampered, they squirmed their way through the meditiation session until it was finally time to eat.
Every inch of the table was covered with fancy finger foods, flower bouquets and plastic goblets filled with sparkling fruit juice. A mountain of delicately strung strawberry kabobs served as a striking centerpiece.
It’s always a good lunch, but this week, the mentors on the food team had really outdone themselves, one mentor said.
Look at those pretty hands eating pretty food, chimed in another.
Each Saturday, the mentors plan a different theme such as science day, nutrition day, or career day. One week, the girls even went to the Washington Duke Inn and Golf Club for etiquette day to learn about manners and networking.
The program, usually just called FIN, has grown more organized and elaborate in recent years, Smith said. FIN has started working other groups into the weekly programming, such as dance classes with Duke’s Latin dance troupe, Sabrosura, and African dance ensemble, Nakisai.
It has also become important to have Spanish-speaking women on the group’s executive board to communicate with parents.
“The Duke bubble is real,” Allotey said. “We do need to have a connection between where a university is located and the students at the university.
“We as students have a duty to maintain that relationship with the community.”
‘I need a mentor’
FIN mentors coordinate with counselors in Durham schools to identify girls for the program. Most go to Club Boulevard Humanities Magnet Elementary School, but some attend E.K. Powe Elementary School, George Watts Montessori Magnet School, Carter Community Charter School, and others.
“Girls will come to me and say, ‘Miss Johnson, my mama says I need a mentor,’” said Club Boulevard counselor Aja Johnson. She makes sure those girls especially get enrolled in FIN.
The girls always love the program, she added.
“I have one girl who goes every Saturday, and her mom can’t wait for her sister to be old enough to go, too,” she said.
Laura Walton, a counselor at E.K. Powe Elementary, encourages girls with leadership potential and interest in extracurricular activities to apply.
But she also has to consider whether they have their family’s support and a way to get to Duke every Saturday, a barrier for many students. Duke regulations prevent the mentors from giving the girls rides.
I have one girl who goes every Saturday, and her mom can’t wait for her sister to be old enough to go, too.
Club Boulevard counselor Aja Johnson
According to Allotey, the program was created for young women of color. Although it is not limited to them, they remain its target demographic.
Walton acknowledged the importance of mentorship programs in closing school achievement gaps, especially for students of color.
Across North Carolina, 68.9 percent of white students are grade level proficient compared to 45.2 percent of Hispanic students and 37.3 percent of black students.
In Durham, the difference is more dramatic: 77 percent of white students compared to 36.1 percent of Hispanic students and 34.2 percent of black students.
“Our schools are often run by white women, so it’s a wonderful thing to have any sort of programming that empowers communities to work with populations that represent them,” Walton said. “It’s really powerful for people to have role models who look like them.”
“They’re able to see minority girls at Duke growing and prospering,” Johnson said. “They’re able to see something they can aspire to.”
With spa day over, program coordinator Sam Siddiqui announced the next weekend’s activities would focus on black and Latino history. As she handed out review sheets, one girl protested that FIN was turning into school. The mentors laughed.