New Hampshire Fellows Sarah Bennett and Melissa Cantave are helping girls enrolled at Stevens High School in Claremont harness the power of writing and reflection to develop self-confidence, hope for the future, and agency in their lives using the Telling My Story curriculum, which deploys arts and creativity to foster community and social engagement between people from different walks of life. Their project also has a mentoring component to help participants channel their potential into educational and career pursuits.
Their project was inspired by Dartmouth lecturer and Telling My Story creator Pati Hernández, their academic mentor. Cantave, a student at the college’s Geisel School of Medicine, took Hernandez’s course “Theater for Social Change,” which examined the impact of activism on theater, where she learned that people could develop agency through deep introspection, communication, and reflection.
“That class helped me develop self-confidence and left me empowered,” said Cantave.
Similarly, after meeting Hernandez and seeing a Telling My Story performance, Bennett came to understand how creative expression that empowers others can be a genuine force for positive change not only in the lives of those who create and perform the work, but in the larger community, too.
As such, Bennett and Cantave strove to “create a project that would help these teens realize the value of their own voices and the validity of their life stories; and grow into their unique, amazing potentials,” said Bennett. “We incorporate writing as both an artistic medium for self expression and a technical skill set to advance students in future jobs or school applications.”
The program’s mentorship component stems from Cantave’s own high school experiences learning from mentors who “guided me through the college process and empowered me to follow my passions.”
Despite their eagerness to help their students unlock their potential, Bennett and Cantave expected it would take time for the teens to adjust to their presence in school and to participate in the activities they planned for them. They were surprised, however, at the high level of engagement almost from the get-go. Days into the program, for example, for the purpose of lesson planning Bennett and Cantave asked participants what college topics they were interested in. One student asked them about their own processes for choosing what college to attend, which led to more questions from other students—e.g. how they went about applying for scholarships and about their experiences as college students.
“I felt elated after that conversation because I could see that the students trusted us and valued our advice,” said Cantave. “Even though we had just started our program with them, they began to see us as their mentors, and that was really special for me.”
Bennett was also surprised by the enthusiasm and generosity of their own project mentors and other community members on whom they have relied for assistance in launching their project.
“We’re so lucky to work with incredible people who are already so busy with all they do!” said Bennett. “In designing a project that focused on identified needs from the community—in this case, the unmet needs of high school students—I think our passion aligned with the motivations of other people in the Claremont community who are also devoted to empowering young women.”
Bennett is hopeful that not only will project participants leave feeling prepared and empowered to tackle whatever challenges they face and with the tools they need to make good decisions that align with their aspirations for the future. She is also hopeful that the program will create the mentors and community leaders of tomorrow.
“My dream is that these students are confident enough to embolden other young people to use their voices and pursue a better future in order to create ripples of positive change in their community,” she said.
Cantave is hopeful that the program will take root not just at Stevens High School, but at other schools in need, too. She is looking to involve incoming Geisel students and Dartmouth undergrads in becoming mentors and community partners to local high school students.
“Long term,” she said, “I hope this project can foster further community building between the Geisel and Claremont communities.”
For Cantave, the Fellowship experience has affirmed her belief in the importance of mentorship and furthered her desire to continue mentoring others in her professional career.
“For young women especially, it can be difficult to find female mentors around their age to look up to for advice about understanding their agency,” she said. “Additionally, as a black woman, I hope to not only inspire students from underrepresented backgrounds to pursue medicine but also to mentor and teach them. The experiences I’m gaining now through working at Stevens High School will ultimately help me develop the skills to do that.”
Bennett said the Fellowship has given her the experience she needs to become a physician “who seeks understanding of what a patient needs to work alongside them toward a healthier life.”
“And when I see that a need in a community is not being met,” she added, “I will have an incredible network of passionate people to guide me in how to organize and help the community meet that need.”