“A Real Leader:” After 34 years, Wendy Reiter steps down from Middle Division Mentoring program

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Sean Lee , Staff Writer

“The spirit and energy she poured into the mentor program changed everyone who was a part of it for the better,” former Middle Division Mentor (MDM) Beatrix Bondor ‘18 said. After 34 years of running the MDM program, Director of HM Parent Institute Wendy Reiter is stepping down and will be replaced by Advisory Coordinator Norma Rodriguez.

Reiter entered the school in 1987 as a member of the 7-12 Guidance and Counseling Department and later became the director of the Middle Division (MD) department during its formation in 2000. When asked to create a guidance program for MD students, she adapted the pre-existing Big Brother Big Sister program that paired high school students with 7th and 8th graders to create the current MDM program.

Today, the program involves 87 Upper Division mentors, who lead MD advisories once a week for fifteen minutes and participate in welcoming events such as MD Orientation, a summer orientation program for all students entering the MD. “There are thousands of current and former students who owe their comfortable and affable first week of school to Mrs. Reiter’s good work,” Head of School Dr. Tom Kelly wrote.

Reiter made it a priority to continuously adapt the program. “Every year, I found that it was really important to keep the program fresh and invigorated,” she said. Thus, Reiter established a group of two to five juniors and seniors who would serve as leaders for the rest of the mentors and collaborate closely with her to improve the program. “We worked as a team and I would meet closely with them regularly, all year long,” she said.

In addition, Reiter sought advice from grade deans and faculty members to make changes when necessary. In the face of the pandemic, the MDM program also had to go through several adjustments, she said. “We had to work hard when we were remote in the logistics of making it work for the mentors and their mentees to connect over Zoom and adjusting activities that were more appropriate for remote learning versus in person,” she said.

From the beginning of the MDM program, Reiter has been essential to its operation and maintenance, MDM leader Michael Shaari (12) said. “She has done the program for over three decades, so it’s like her brainchild,” he said. “She knew the ins and outs of it, and you just felt like you could really rely on her. She knew what was going on at all times, she was heavily involved in every single step, and she was always there.”

Reiter always knew exactly what to do, MDM leader Ria Chowdhry (12) said. “The fact that she was always there to help support us and to give advice and guidance with her experience with the program was always really valuable, and I think we always really appreciated that,” former MDM leader Leyli Granmayeh ‘21 said. “She was so willing to jump in and dedicate her time to the program even more so than she was required to.”

Because Reiter provided significant support for her students, Chowdhry said her experience working with Reiter was educational.

“She knows a lot about guidance and knows everything about all the middle schoolers, but what she’s really special at is helping people succeed in a mentoring role,” former MDM leader Will Golub ‘19 said “She’s helpful at teaching them how to communicate, how to lead, how to take ownership, and how to make a plan, and that’s especially true with the mentor leaders.” Reiter’s philosophy of letting mentors take matters into their own hands taught them to take ownership of their responsibilities, he said.

Above all, Reiter served as a mentor for all leadership members and mentors involved with the MDM program, Granmayeh said.

“[Reiter] really taught me how to manage a team well and how to use everyone’s individual assets to come together to reach a larger goal,” former MDM leader Diana Shaari ‘20 said. “This program was a big undertaking for juniors and seniors in high school because of how important mentors are to middle schoolers, and she really did an amazing job teaching us how to work together and run the program.”

Reiter emphasized aspects of teamwork and the effective delegation of tasks, making sure that work was evenly spread out between the five or six leadership members and that every member participated in the group effort, Chowdhry said.

“One thing she taught me, above all, is the importance of communication,” Bondor said. “While it sounds really obvious, what it means — that is so valuable at Horace Mann, and college, and everywhere else — is answering emails when you see them, being on time, and respecting your teammates’ needs, time constraints, and really just showing up and being on call.” This value of communication stood out to Michael as Reiter treated her students like colleagues and adults, making it easier to exchange ideas and collaborate, he said.

Reiter’s passion shined through during her early morning meetings with mentors, Golub said. “The energy and enthusiasm she brought to those meetings was incredible,” he said. “She would spend 15 days up at Dorr doing constant programming with middle schoolers, which was extremely tiring, but she never let it show. She was always upbeat, super interactive, and a real leader.”

Reiter’s dedication to the program continued during the summer when leadership members would gather to organize and plan for the upcoming school year, Granmayeh said. “During those Zoom calls, she was so welcoming,” Chowdhry said. “Right off the bat, we felt very welcome and we were super excited to be leading the program.”

Reiter focused on building meaningful relationships with her students, Granmayeh said. Diana knew from the beginning of sixth grade that she wanted to become a mentor because of her relationship with Reiter in advisory and continues to reach out to her for advice with college-related matters. “She really cares about her students, and she really supported me a lot,” she said. “I don’t know what my Horace Mann experience would be if she hadn’t been such an important part of my time there.”

With Reiter, a quick question could turn into a 45 minute-long conversation about a completely different topic, Granmayeh said. “Mrs. Reiter is always trying to bring people together to build a community, and I think the fact that she facilitated such close relationships between all of us, even just from the start, was really important in helping us effectively work together,” she said. 

“All the happy memories from Dorr mentor training and Middle Division Orientation, the friendships and connections from those events, are possible because of her,” former MDM leader Connor Morris ‘19 said. “Decades of Horace Mann friendships got their start due to Mrs. Reiter’s compassion for this community and tireless effort to connect it in life-changing ways.”

One tradition that helped bring leadership members closer together was the end-of-the-year barbecues Reiter hosted at her house, where she invited past and prospective leadership members, Diana said. “It was a nice way to end any academic year and it was just so welcoming, having us at her home and hosting us,” she said. The barbeque set the tone for how close leadership members became and allowed new members to ask older members for advice, Granmayeh said.

Reiter’s welcoming nature also extended to faculty, Kelly said. “From individual meetings, to group discussions with teachers, to personalized gifts of encouragement, to working with her peers and other students to secure friend groups, the list goes on and on,” he wrote.

Reiter was one of the first faculty members to reach out to Head of MD Javaid Khan and put time and resources aside to make him feel welcome at the school. “She’s a people person,” he said. “If you’ve ever spoken to her, she loves a good conversation, she remembers people’s names and faces, makes them feel seen.”

Reiter has also made sure to look after her successor, Rodriguez, who knows that she can reach out to Reiter at any time with any questions or for advice. “She would sit me down and give me advice on the work environment, on how to take care of myself, on how to continue to grow, and we have a good relationship, and I really appreciate that,” Rodriguez said.

When considering a replacement for Reiter, Khan thought Rodriguez was the perfect candidate due to her position as Advisory Coordinator in the MD. “Since the mentors are in the advisories one day a week, it just made sense that both programs would join together,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez has the perfect qualities to take on the job, Khan said. “She’s got an amazing sense of humor, brings some levity, and the students are going to respond to her beautifully.” 

Rodriguez has maintained close contact with Reiter ever since she arrived at the school, even working under Reiter, which helped develop their working relationship. “I knew the ins and outs of the programs, the training the mentor have to go through, I was aware of that, and Mrs. Reiter has shared plenty of information with me on how the program runs. I felt that I was prepared to take on the role,” she said.

Reiter has offered Rodriguez support throughout the entire process, Rodriguez said. “I have a lot of mixed emotions, but Mrs. Reiter was kind enough to reach out to me over the summer and to offer her support and say that she is here to help me through my first year, so I deeply appreciate that,” she said.

Reiter is confident in Rodriguez’s ability to take over the MDM program. “[Rodriguez] and I have worked together for so many years, so she knew a lot about the program and the ethos of the program, so I don’t think it will be too much of a transition,” Reiter said. “Anybody and everybody that comes into a new position and is taking over a program, eventually they find their own path and their own vision for the program.”

Reiter is extremely proud and gratified by the program’s growth over the years.  “The mentor program has become a really significant program in the minds of many — many students hear about the program, learn about it, and have come to recognize that it’s been an important function of the school, and so many students have wanted to become a part of it,” she said.

Reiter is especially grateful for the years of work and collaboration with Kelly and the Dorr faculty. “Dr. Kelly has been enormously supportive of the mentor program, and I really want the community to know how gratified I am,” she said. “The support and prominence he gave the program — it really made the program so much more credible within the community, and for that I’m most appreciative and indebted.”

Some of Reiter’s favorite memories have been moments of joy and collaboration shared with other faculty members at Dorr. She is incredibly appreciative of the opportunities that the school and the Dorr facility have provided in developing an orientation program. “Even though I was intimately involved in all of this, I can stand back and away from it and say, ‘Wow. I can’t believe that we had this opportunity, the luxury, the resources, and the support of an administration to really fuel a program like this over these so many years,’” she said. “And for that, I will always be grateful.”

Reiter hopes that people continue to recognize the importance of training and the development of leadership skills for students. She is confident that the program will continue to evolve and that students will one day be able to return to Dorr in person for future orientation programs, she said. “If you want to create something where you work, you think about its longevity — how will it live beyond me? — and I think this is definitely a testament to Mrs. Reiter that our program lives on beyond her departure,” Khan said. “That means you’ve set up some good bones for us to work off of.”

Though Reiter will continue to serve as the Director of the Parent Institute as a part-time consultant while living outside of New York, she will miss her active involvement on campus and the relationships she has forged with colleagues and peers over the past three decades. “Relationships matter to me a lot, so I will have to work hard at maintaining those relationships from a bit afar,” she said. She will also miss the day-to-day in-person life and the routine of being on campus, and having people stop by her office.

“The program is going to change a lot without her, and while the program is in good hands, she shaped it for 30 years,” Bondor said. “We’re glad she’s not leaving HM — nobody is ready for that.”