Campus News

Combating loneliness through peer education

Tara Anastasoff, right, serves as a peer ally in the DawgsTogether program, working with first-year and transfer students like Scott Wagner, left. (Photo by Peter Frey/UGA)

Division of Academic Enhancement launches peer ally program to foster relationships

Change can be nerve-wracking, especially for incoming college students. On top of that, COVID-19 presents its own set of challenges for students, like second-year transfer Scott Wagner.

“COVID has taken advantage of my shy nature,” said Wagner, a computer science major in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences. “Pushing things online and not really having the opportunities to randomly meet people has been tough.”

The University of Georgia’s Division of Academic Enhancement is working to overcome that obstacle through peer education.

While UGA has offered peer mentoring for more than 40 years, the pandemic hastened the need for a program to help first-year and transfer students plug into the UGA community. When Zoom calls and virtual events replaced after-class conversations and happenstance meetings on campus, many new students found it challenging to make those vital social connections.

“Our goal was to not just tell students they’re valued by the institution and that they’re not alone, but to help them experience that,” said Maggie Blanton, DAE’s assistant director for services.

To promote relationships among students, DAE launched DawgsTogether, a program that connects incoming students with peer allies to explore opportunities, academic support networks and social groups.

Whether virtual or in person, students Tara Anastasoff and Scott Wagner regularly touch base about new involvement opportunities around campus. (Photo by Peter Frey/UGA)

“I’m here to make connections,” Wagner said. “It’s nice to have support for that. It really does foster that sense of community.”

Introducing peer allies

During its first iteration last fall, DawgsTogether hosted four weeks of themed workshops around topics like building connections and what it means to thrive on campus. The sessions were led by peer allies who trained with DAE in research-based curriculum.

This semester, the program took a different direction. Incoming students were matched with one of eight peer allies to work one-on-one in areas like goal setting, becoming familiar with campus and exploring involvement opportunities.

“I remember being nervous as a freshman about not making any friends or failing my classes, and while my peers have been in college before, I know that those fears are still present, especially during COVID,” said Tara Anastasoff, a peer ally and second-year public relations major in the Grady College. “I think a program like this is important for helping them find their place here.”

Making a connection

Anastasoff has been working with Wagner since January. At their first meeting, they discussed Wagner’s interests and what he wanted to accomplish this semester.

“I come from a place where there aren’t many resources like DawgsTogether, so I’m not used to taking advantage of them. But I’m glad I have because stepping out of my comfort zone has worked out pretty well,” Wagner said.

We’re not their mentors; we’re their peers and their friends, so I’m excited to see how the relationships transform.” — Kevin Nwogu

Following his meetings with Anastasoff, Wagner hopes to get involved with groups like UGA’s Aperture Club for photographers and the Cognitive Science Club. And he’s not alone. To date, DawgsTogether has served more than 100 students, a number that continues to grow throughout the spring semester.

“What we’re hoping to build is lasting relationships between students,” Blanton said.

That sentiment is echoed among the peer allies.

“I’m excited to see how we grow and connect with the students and other peer allies,” said Kevin Nwogu, a third-year management major in the Terry College of Business. “I think as we get more into the semester, we’ll be more comfortable in these relationships and form bonds where we can go hang out for coffee or meet with another peer ally group. We’re not their mentors; we’re their peers and their friends, so I’m excited to see how the relationships transform.”

Transfer student James Briley, left, works with third-year undergraduate Kevin Nwogu in the DawgsTogether program. (Photo by Peter Frey/UGA)

DawgsTogether is part of a larger DAE initiative surrounding peer education called PLaTO—Peer Learning and Teaching Others—which encompasses peer tutors, peer learning assistants and peer allies. And while DawgsTogether was developed in direct response to the pandemic, DAE Director T. Chase Hagood says that the conclusion of the program is not the end for peer allies.

“I think that we are right at the beginning of something truly exciting when it comes to peer education at UGA,” Hagood said. “What a legacy DawgsTogether could leave for building a more empathetic, invested body of students helping and listening to other students.”