Girl Power

Tufts medical students help Asian-American teens navigate the challenges of adolescence

Middle school and high school participants in the Girls Values Program

When she was a first-year medical student in 2006, Wilma Chan was shadowing a nurse practitioner at a clinic at Tufts Medical Center in Boston’s Chinatown neighborhood. A quiet 10-year-old girl came in with her father. She was morbidly obese and already exhibiting symptoms of diabetes and other health problems.

“She was very discouraged because here are three adults lecturing her about how important it is that she has to lose weight,” recalls Chan, A03, M10. “It’s hard for adults to hear that. For a 10-year-old to hear, that is really hard.”

As the father chided his daughter about not exercising and eating the wrong foods, Chan noticed that he wasn’t talking about other things in her life that could underpin her weight problem.

“I’m thinking, ‘She probably has no idea how to do any of those things,’ ” says Chan. “No one is saying, ‘What else is going on? Who are your peers at school? What are people saying to you? How do you feel about other kids and the way they act toward you?’ ”

Afterwards, Chan discussed her reactions with the nurse practitioner, who echoed her concerns, but explained that there was no time to dig deeper.

The same day, a 14-year-old girl came to the clinic, the Asian Pediatric and Adolescent Clinic at the Floating Hospital for Children. She was complaining that she didn’t like the way her body looked. “I was really surprised. She looked absolutely fine,” says Chan, who is finishing up her first year of her residency in emergency medicine at the University of Chicago. “Part of me was thinking, ‘Oh God, I wish I could bring you to Starbucks and sit you down and keep talking to you,’ ” she recalls.

What both girls could have benefited from, Chan realized, was a support program in which the girls could be matched with students like herself to mentor them through the challenges of adolescence.

Thus was born the Girls Values Program, which Chan founded in 2007. Led by female Asian-American medical students at Tufts, it provides social and emotional support for Asian-American girls between the ages of 11 and 16 who live in Boston. The program, based at the Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center (BCNC), addresses issues such as academics, peer pressure, family relationships and identity, with the goal of helping the girls become confident as individuals, family members and leaders in the community.

While the BCNC does some advertising at local schools, most girls find the program through word of mouth from their friends.

“We wanted it to be for girls on the borderline, who just need a little push from an adult who is not part of their family, someone to talk to who could identify with some of the problems that went on at home,” says Chan.

Cycle of Mentorship

Of the 10 girls in the program that first year, says Chan, none of them made the cut to gain entrance to Boston’s prestigious exam schools. The next year, as seventh graders, three-quarters of them were accepted to exam schools.

“Just seeing the level of confidence they had was very impressive and gratifying,” recalls Chan.

After three years, Chan handed the reins of the program to Hyejo Jun, A09, M13, who as an undergraduate at Tufts had been involved with the public health awareness groups Prevention, Awareness and Community at Tufts (PACT) and Tufts VOX.

Jun says the girls benefit from bonding with strong, smart women in leadership roles. But the most important thing is the personal connections.

Hyejo Jun, M13, observes a planning meeting for the Girls Values Program at the Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center. Photo: Alonso NicholsHyejo Jun, M13, observes a planning meeting for the Girls Values Program at the Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center. Photo: Alonso Nichols

“I want to be here because I want to tell them I went through the same things—concerns with meeting academic expectations, wading through social pressures. I’ve been through that,” says Jun.

The program also creates a chain of mentoring by preparing the high school girls to support the middle schoolers; the Tufts medical students then transition from direct work with the girls to more of a supporting role. Emily Weng, an 18-year-old senior at Boston Latin Academy, says she understands because she’s been there. “I know how they feel, so I can help them,” she says of the younger girls.

Activities include learning about nutrition (cooking or doing a healthy recipe scavenger hunt at the grocery store), personal hygiene (from learning how to shave to making face masks out of mangos and papayas), body image and sexual health. In one session, Jun recruited friends for a fitness panel to show the girls what kinds of exercise they could do in an urban setting, from hula hoops and yoga to climbing stairs and even dancing in your bedroom.

“They like having sisters to talk to, sisters to rely on,” says Jun. “It’s a new experience. They get to meet more people, they get to be open. They get to do things that they’ve never tried.”

A Matter of Trust

Jun says that one of the most pressing concerns for the girls in the program is education. “It is so important in Asian communities that the girls may feel they don’t have the opportunities to freely ask questions with the comfort of knowing they will get honest, relevant answers that don’t involve ‘you musts,’ ” says Jun.

Building enough trust with the girls so they’ll bring up more sensitive issues like drugs or depression is tough, but, Jun says, the more forthcoming and supportive the mentors are, the more it encourages honest discussion.

“I think the beauty of mentorship is that I’m able to speak honestly about what I did, about my own experiences, and not only do they see that I went through it, but I’m also able to talk about it,” she says. “That sets up a really good foundation for them being able to speak about it, too.”

No topic is taboo; they talk about breast development, condoms and birth control.

“They asked me, ‘Will my breasts grow if I sleep on my stomach?’ ” says Jun. “They know I won’t laugh at them because I probably had the same question.”

That’s the best thing about the Girls Values Program, the Tufts students say. It’s a safe space for learning and sharing during an often confusing part of the young girls’ lives.

“Through the program, we all realized that no one’s life is perfect,” says Chan. “They learn how to respect each other and each other’s hardships.”

One particular moment stands out. “Some of my colleagues were telling the girls about their own experiences growing up,” says Jun, “about a body that maybe they weren’t as happy with for some reason. And I remember one of the high school girls telling me, ‘I don’t feel alone. I didn’t realize other people felt the same way.’ ”

Georgiana Cohen can be reached at  

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