Simmons College senior Julia Reynolds is sitting in a sunlit coffee shop in North Cambridge with two students from Cambridge Rindge & Latin School, trying to decide whether they should head over to Newbury Street to get their hair done.
Messeret Grensai and Addisalem Agegnehu are her protégées of sorts, but they seek advice from Reynolds on much more than where to find a good hairstylist.
As participants in Girls Preparing to Succeed, an empowerment program that Reynolds started at Rindge & Latin last year, Messeret and Addisalem look to her for everything from frank conversations about race and gender to tips on writing a strong academic essay or mending fractured relationships with their high school teachers.
"She's everything in one," said the 15-year-old Messeret. "When something good happens, she's the first person I want to tell, and when something bad happens, we'll reject her call because we know she's going to yell at us for not doing the right thing."
Reynolds, who graduated from the Cambridge public high school in 2004, says her own experiences there and her transition to college made her worry that urban young women weren't getting "the tools they need to succeed."
"My first three years of high school, I was a very poor student and was always in trouble," Reynolds said. "I always knew, deep down inside, that I wasn't stupid, but I had a lot of teachers who I could already tell put me in this position of 'She's going to stop here, she can't go past a certain point, she can't succeed.' "
With help from her guidance counselors and her family, Reynolds turned things around in her senior year at Rindge & Latin.
At Simmons, however, Reynolds realized that she was something of a rarity. "Simmons is so close, I figured I'd meet tons of people from the Rindge, no problem. But I didn't, and it concerned me," she said. "I tracked down one girl who came from the Rindge, but she left after a while."
Reynolds starting Girls Preparing to Succeed with a $500 grant from the college's alumni executive board. She arranged for the girls to receive passes to health clubs, record their thoughts in individual journals, and take part in weekly conversations about everything from grades to body image.
This year, with the help of college faculty, alums, and fellow students, Reynolds expanded the program to Fenway High School because of its proximity to Simmons, bringing the number of participants to 28. She also arranged for the girls to attend a hip-hop empowerment conference at Harvard's Kennedy School last month.
Addisalem, a 16-year-old sophomore, has wanted to be active in politics since she was a young girl living in Sudan and listening to her parents and their friends hold kitchen-table debates. It was at the hip-hop empowerment conference that she found her voice.
"I always thought I couldn't be a politician because I do not like public speaking," she said. "It's my worst fear ever. . . . But when we went to the Harvard thing, I was really interested in the topics they were talking about." Before the assembled crowd, Addisalem went up to the microphone and asked the panelists how she as a high school student might "take action, be a part of change, and help or be more aware of her surroundings."
Messeret also has wanted to be a politician for as long as she can remember. She said the program has helped her realize that her career choices are not limited to being a doctor, nurse, or model - all professions her family has hinted would be appropriate for her.
"We're literally supposed to sit there and look cute because we're girls, and I kind of thought that was right for a minute. But [Girls Preparing to Succeed] stuck it in my head that it's not," she said. "There's lot of things I disagree about that I can't wait to grow up and change."