Taking a Stand

Ferkauf Doctoral Student Creates Widespread Movement to Combat Girl-on-Girl Bullying

Seventh grade was brutal for Patricia Ottaviano: without any warning, her friends all seemed to turn on her at once, leaving her isolated, hurt and confused. “It was like something out of a movie,” she recalled. And it wasn’t a passing phase—the situation worsened as the school year went on until it was so bad Ottaviano felt her only option was to change schools. “It was a very prolonged, very personal experience with bullying,” she said.

Ferkauf student Patricia Ottaviano
Ferkauf student Patricia Ottaviano

It was also the beginning of a lifelong quest for Ottaviano, now a doctoral student at Yeshiva University’s Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology. “As I struggled to adapt in my new school, I felt like I was doing more and more things that I wouldn’t normally do just to fit in—gossiping, being tougher than came naturally to me,” she said. “I began to feel like I had seen so many girls be mean to each other. I took a step back, and it started to seem like this was a universal experience that all girls struggle with: The challenge of trying to fit in, trying to find your self-identity, and doing things you later regret.”

Her desire to understand that experience is in part what led Ottaviano to study psychology at Ferkauf—but her desire to change it was even greater. So in 2013, armed with little more than her education in psychology and her own war stories, Ottaviano founded Sister Soldier, a nonprofit school assembly program. “Our mission is to bring awareness and healing to the often cruel and vicious and hurtful ways that girls treat each other in middle school and high school,” she said.

At assemblies, Ottaviano shares her story and encourages students to share theirs and to think of ways that they can stand up for each other, forming a supportive network of peers. It’s a uniquely safe space for girls; bullying in general has received a lot of attention from media in recent years, but girl-on-girl bullying is less discussed. Ottaviano has found that keeping Sister Soldier’s assemblies a girls-only affair has contributed to the program’s incredible reception by young students. “They’re more open, they don’t have to worry what boys are thinking of them,” she said.

Ottaviano herself is also a factor in the program’s success. “I tried to start it when I was on the young side, only 22, so they feel like it’s someone who was there not so long ago, as opposed to a teacher or parent or principal,” she said. “It really resonates with the girls.”

Ottaviano’s book

To date, Sister Soldier has held more than 50 assemblies. The overwhelming demand for the program even moved Ottaviano to write a book, based on her experiences and those that have been shared with Sister Soldier. Called Girl World: How to Ditch the Drama and Find Your Inner Amazing (Sourcebooks Fire, August 2015), it seeks to provide girls with an invaluable companion and resource to navigate the toughest situations: “It’s divided into common situations, so if for example they’re feeling excluded, or their friends turned on them, or they’re the victim of cyberbullying on the Internet, if there’s a situation that’s happening right now, they can turn right to that chapter and hopefully find relief and comfort that will generate a discussion about the hurdle they’re going through,” said Ottaviano.

As the success of Sister Soldier grows, Ottaviano has found that her studies at Ferkauf have helped equip her to meet the challenges of girl-on-girl bullying head-on. Her doctoral work has allowed Ottaviano to explore the field of relational aggression, which has fascinated her since her own middle school experiences with it, especially in the ways it is displayed by adolescent girls. “What’s so terrible about it is the subtle, secret language that girls have developed in communicating with each other, all these subtle ways we take digs and jabs at each other,” she said. “They fly under the radar so we don’t get in trouble, but they still have lasting consequences. It can be really hard to detect who the bully is and who the victim is, who the gossip is; it can just look like friends laughing. But there are all these secret, hidden ways that girls get at one another.”

A Sister Soldier assembly
A Sister Soldier assembly

“Something I love about Ferkauf is that it’s a small program, and it enables you to work at a school and have your own private clinical study,” said Ottaviano. “Faculty like my department head, Dr. Abraham Givner, and Dr. Tracy Prout were very encouraging about getting me out there and giving me more ideas about how to network and build Sister Soldier within the Yeshiva community.”

“Patricia is a warm and compassionate person with a gift for encouraging and supporting others,” said Dr. Tracy Prout, assistant professor of psychology. “She has an unusual ability to take the experiences of her youth and use them to empower young people today.”

Ultimately, Ottaviano hopes to use her doctoral degree in school psychology,  to expand the reach of the work she has already begun with Sister Soldier. “With the credentials of a PsyD, I’ll be able to impact not only students but parents as well, maybe even working within schools to implement programs about bullying and bullying prevention,” she said. “I want to make a positive change in a school setting and work with all the different people who make up a school community.”