RISE-ing

It's quite a riddle for the average overcommitted University student: an activity that everyone at the University participates in on a daily basis, yet also an activity that doesn't make it onto students' lists of extracurriculars or their resumes. But some students have taken an activity not traditionally considered extracurricular and are using it to improve students' general well-being.

A dedicated group of University students launched Project RISE Jan. 22, a peer counseling organization for black students, thus formalizing the elusive activity: seeking out friends in times of need.

The main goal of Project RISE, Resolving Issues through Support and Education, is to provide a welcoming environment in which black students can comfortably discuss problems that all college students face. The issues can range from body image to more serious problems like depression. Another purpose of the program is to de-stigmatize the act of asking for help -- psychological, emotional or otherwise.

On launch day, members wore Project RISE T-shirts and handed out fliers.

"Launch day was really about awareness and being visible to the community," according to second-year College student Krystal Commons, one of two founders of the project.

The group also advertised its start at Harambee, an event sponsored by the Peer Advising Program at the Office of African-American Affairs, which honors black first-years who have excelled academically or attended OAAA programs throughout the semester.

Commons' co-founder is second-year College student Reggie White.

"Reggie and I both have friends who are going through things alone and came to us for help, and we weren't equipped with the tools to be an effective sounding board for their problems," Commons said.

Commons and others observed that many of their friends felt uncomfortable with the idea of going to a psychologist at Counseling and Psychological Services or would not continue going after an initial visit.

White said he wants Project RISE to create an atmosphere in which students "don't have to worry about receiving a sensitive ear."

One of the goals of Project RISE is to close this gap of discomfort so black students willing to seek help can receive that help. The project also aims to improve students' recognition of serious problems so that, according to Commons, everyone knows "what depression may look like and what anxiety may feel like."

Another important tenet of Project RISE, agreed upon by the student founders and adult sponsors alike, is de-stigmatizing the act of asking for help.

"Students get caught up in being busy and feel like it's not okay to say 'I'm hurting,' or 'I'm dealing with these issues,'" Commons said.

In order make the program as successful as possible the students have enlisted the helpof professionals.

Interim OAAA Dean Maurice Apprey, who provides institutional support for Project RISE, said, "We also have to bear in mind that college students are still developing, so they'll make mistakes along the way. Someone has to be there to provide a cushion of support and to provide direction. Direction is key."

As a psychologist and the project's main liaison to CAPS, Warrenetta Mann said all students at the University -- regardless of race -- experience mental health issues, although black students tend to underutilize traditional mental health treatment.

"Most research shows that African-American students are less likely to seek out a professional, to go to therapy and to stay in therapy once they get started," Mann said.

Mann also said that part of the purpose of Project RISE is to overcome the cultural barrier that sometimes exists between mental health professionals and black students, and to help different cultural groups work past that obstacle to seeking help.

"Project RISE is starting with African Americans since that's the network the students belong to and they know that peer counseling is already taking place informally," Mann said.

Deciding which mental health issues needed to be addressed was determined by a needs assessment survey conducted by Dr. Adrienne Keller, who works at the University's medical facilities.

First, Keller spoke to three groups of six to eight black students about their experiences at the University. She then developed the needs assessment survey, which answered questions including whether a black peer counseling system was a good idea and whether students have heard of or have been to CAPS. Over 200 black students took the needs assessment survey, and the issues that Project RISE focuses on are based on its results.

Project RISE operates on a three-part system. Apprey lends the OAAA's support to a student leadership team, which consists of the student founders and four other leaders. These student leaders distribute themselves among five smaller, more specific groups: an advising team, peer educators, peer counselors, resource coordinators and the developing leaders team.

Peer educators are responsible for making presentations to other predominantly black groups and ethnically diverse groups around Grounds about mental health issues. The students emphasize mental health resources that already exist at the University in addition to the services of Project RISE.

"Our goal is not to replace the resources of other organizations," Commons said. "This is the first ever peer counseling system at the University, for African Americans or anyone else. We want to do co-sponsorship in the form of discussions [and] forums."

Project RISE's peer counselors are responsible for putting the student-to-student help element of the project into practice.

One or more peer counselors are available to speak to students on a walk-in basis between 12 p.m. and 4 p.m. Monday through Friday in the Project RISE office, located in the OAAA.

Christian West, a member of the student leadership team and a peer counselor leader, said the peer counselors have received training from CAPS professionals.

"We started out with theoretical training: how people think of themselves, how they deal with issues," he said. "We handled a lot of issues that all University students face, those that target our age group, like depression."

The next step was developing hypothetical situations, West said. The peer counselors engaged in role-playing exercises in which each peer counselor pretended to counsel another student.

"It was as close to a real situation as it could have been, from depression to LGBTQ [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer] issues," West added. "We have ongoing training every other week that a counselor will be putting on, focusing on different issues, like depression, anxiety and relationships."

The resource coordinators are in charge of maintaining a Web site for Project RISE and connecting the organization to other resources on Grounds.

Currently, all the members of Project RISE are working to fulfill the short-term goal of getting Project RISE underway as a reliable source of helpful advice from other students.

According to Apprey, the most pressing goal for the future is increasing the project's sustainability, or its power to "stay" as an organization.

Apprey said he hopes when this group of leaders graduates, they hand the project over seamlessly to another set of students. This will require that the project become an integral part of student leadership at the University quickly.

"We need to have structural continuity and sustainability because the students wax and wane in what they bring to leadership," Apprey said. "Some are very enterprising, and some aren't as visionary."

Apprey also noted that the most challenging aspect of running Project RISE in the future will be maintaining its completely student-run nature. Apprey said Project RISE has the potential to be a great example of students creating a project and having a sense of ownership of it.

To retain a sense of student ownership, Apprey said, all of the "stake-holders," or organizations that are lending support to the project -- such as the OAAA, Student Health and the Office of the Dean of Students -- must develop the skills to be supportive without taking control away from the students. At the same time, students must obtain the skills to run the project effectively.

Although Project RISE targets black students at the University, its founders said they hope that students will see the project as a way for student counseling to cross into the University's many sectors.

"Project RISE not only helps students support students, but helps with cultural mixing and understanding between groups, Commons said. "It's not just about African Americans supporting other African Americans, but students of one race supporting others of that race. We'd love for it to be a University initiative and become University-wide. It's important for it to not just be an ideal but to be something practiced here."

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