When college student Emma Gerson first arrived at UC Berkeley in 2019, it was a big transformation. And transformations, she said, can often provoke unwanted emotions.
“Going from a happy, healthy home to a dorm is a huge transition,” said Gerson, now in third year of American Studies. “Coming from a chaotic, dangerous or violent home to a dormitory makes no sense. I was having a little trouble finding my place. “
Towards the end of her first week, however, she met another student in her dorm with a similar background to hers and began to feel more comfortable on campus.
“Meeting someone who had a similar education to mine, who could somehow overcome what I had been through, made me feel like I was not alone – and that anchored me”, said Gerson said. “It is often said that healing is not linear, but I also think that healing does not happen in isolation. Community is so important, especially when you come to a new place.”
Gerson began working with ASUC to promote access to mental health services on campus. While doing this work, she discovered that many students had been affected by domestic violence, but felt that they had no space where they could connect with each other.
All of this got Gerson thinking: How many students on campus have been affected by domestic violence? She started to research and found that the problem was much more serious than she thought.
She found that at least one in four students in the United States report experiencing domestic violence as a child. And that this trauma can negatively impact their ability to succeed in academia. While there were already trauma-informed resources on campus that students could access, Emma wanted to create a more relaxed, secure space where students could meet regularly and support each other in a low-pressure environment.
So, like a real Berkeleyan, she started one. This is called Circle Up.
“Circle Up is a peer support group for students, by students,” Gerson said. “We believe that each of us holds the solutions to our problems and has the ability to be a home for ourselves and for others. Having a community of people who can understand where you have been can help you find where you are. go .”
Circle Up began meeting virtually in the fall of 2020 as a support program for students affected by domestic violence and substance abuse. This year, after COVID-19 restrictions eased and the campus reopened, the group began to meet in person and expanded to include those impacted by the industrial complex prison system.
Linked to the Restorative Justice Center on campus, Circle Up borrows much of the guiding principles of restorative justice, a practice that is based on the belief that strong communities are essential to prevent harm from happening. Two of Circle Up’s leaders – Elias Nepa and Mythis Zamalea – are undergraduate student leaders for the center.
While the program is written by Gerson, Nepa and Zamalea, it is also written by the larger group Circle Up. “We are constantly discussing as a group what we need to talk about, what we need to address and our goals. Our program is very flexible – it is constantly changing and evolving. “
At each meeting, the group sits in a circle, checks in, gives field recognition, and then the leaders introduce guiding questions. They could discuss concepts such as boundaries, self-love versus self-care, or what survival means and how it manifests in their lives.
“Survival is a huge word,” said Nepa, co-head of Circle Up, a fourth-year sociology student who first got involved in student support two years ago as part of the ASUC Commission on Intimate Partner Violence. “Survival appears in different conversations related to domestic violence, sexual violence, drug addiction, the prison industrial complex, and so on.
While the group can discuss heavy topics, Gerson is keen to clarify that the team is not made up of mental health professionals. The goal of Circle Up, she said, is not to treat and treat trauma and open up emotional wounds, but to create a space of support – although people are welcome to share as much. that they feel comfortable with.
“There is absolutely no pressure,” said co-leader Zamalea, a third-year psychology student. “Don’t feel like you have to go into space with the expectation that we want you to go through certain things, and we want you to come to a certain place. Even though we are all walking around and talking, there is absolutely no pressure to even say a word. If you just want to be there and just hear what people are saying and just exist, by any means, welcome. “
For Zamalea, Circle Up is a way to help his peers better understand how their experiences have shaped who they are – a job he started doing when he arrived at Berkeley in 2019.
“Growing up in elementary school I had coaches and teachers who had certain ideas about me,” Zamalea said. “I was constantly singled out when there were altercations with students, and I didn’t know why. I grew up thinking I was a bad boy. When I got to Cal, I learned. the existence of the school-to-prison pipeline and I started to make sense of it all. “
“Even though we all come from different walks of life and have different experiences,” he continued, “being able to share this vulnerability only made it better because I still hold it in my chest. now I still trivialize it, when that actually made me who I am. “
Almost everyone, Gerson said, has been affected by domestic violence, drug addiction or the prison industrial complex in one way or another, even if not directly. And at Circle Up, all students are welcome.
“We really welcome everyone into these bands whether they’ve had these experiences or not – if they’re just there because they want to listen, if they’re just there because they have some kind of experience. adjacent that they want to share, said Gerson. “That’s what we’re talking about: just open this conversation, open the visibility to these students.”
“It’s so important to recognize that these are very human issues.” Nepa added. “When it comes to thinking about homosexuality and gender non-conforming people who may be affected by domestic violence, sexual violence, the prison industrial complex or drug addiction, it is a huge community that suffers from these. various problems at exorbitant rates. “
“As a group, we want to reach as many people as possible or that as many people as possible feel comfortable presenting themselves – whether by listening, contributing or seeking support.”
Circle Up will meet on Fridays from 5 to 6:30 p.m. The first in-person meeting will be held on October 22 in Room 130 at Dwinelle Hall, although the location changes weekly. The Circle Up team will send an update to members each week with the upcoming location. There is no obligation to attend every meeting – students are welcome to join whenever they can.
Learn more about Circle Up and complete a form to register.
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This press release was produced by UC Berkeley News. The opinions expressed here are those of the author.