ProjectConnect: A Fun Way to Combat Student Isolation on Campus

When you connect, you protect.

That’s the guiding principle of ProjectConnect, a nationwide initiative among college campuses to help students meet and make friends—because positive relationships improve mental health and protect against depression and suicide.

Having seen the patterns of student isolation, anxiety, and depression spread since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Kent State University at Geauga/Twinsburg Academic Center started offering ProjectConnect in Spring 2022. Trained campus administrators and program facilitators include Assistant Professor of Psychology Julie Evey and Counseling Specialists Valerie Rutherford and Susan Mark-Sracic. Through ProjectConnect, they offer a fun and relaxed way for students to combat isolation by connecting with peers on campus.

“COVID isolation affected social connection for nearly everyone, especially youth,” says Rutherford.

Unlike in times past, when college students mixed and mingled easily with their peers on campus, Rutherford and Mark-Sracic explain, “Many of our college students today spent part of their high school education learning in isolation, at home, separated from their peers. High school is a crucial time for developing the social skills necessary for building and maintaining relationships.”

Even pre-COVID, there was already an increased demand for mental health services on campus, particularly for anxiety and depression, notes Mark-Sracic. “Loneliness was identified as one of the major factors contributing to this trend. With the pandemic and the ensuing quarantines, anxiety and depression worsened for many.”

Challenges inherent to commuter campuses further complicate efforts to enhance connection among students. At regional campuses such as Kent State Geauga/TAC, it has always been somewhat challenging to engage them in on-campus activities.

“We have the same issues that any commuter campus has—students tend to come to class and go home,” Dr. Evey explains. “They don't get the same opportunities that students living together have to get to know one another.”

Then, after returning to in-person classes and events following COVID shutdowns, students were even more hesitant to get involved. In addition to not staying on campus, some students would sit in their cars to study. Dr. Evey, Mark-Sracic, and fellow members on the Retention Committee wondered, How can we bring them together? 

ProjectConnect, founded by Jessica Gifford, was identified as one promising answer to that question. This program was rolled out simultaneously in Dr. Evey's General Psychology class and outside of class with Mark-Sracic in an opt-in format.

Measuring the impact

While initial participant responses were positive, to further assess whether the program is making a measurable difference, Dr. Evey launched a research project.

This ongoing research is measuring both loneliness and the sense of belongingness, both before students begin ProjectConnect and afterward. “We are seeing improvements in both of these areas,” Dr. Evey notes, adding that other research supports that these positively impact both retention and mental health.

Meanwhile, among the 70 students who have participated in ProjectConnect so far, their feedback has been encouraging.

In response to the question: “What was most valuable, enjoyable, or positive about this experience?” here are a few comments:

"People in my ProjectConnect are awesome and my friends now. I really enjoyed learning about them. If I have questions I can ask them and I won't be scared.”

"Being able to meet new people and everyone being so open and accepting to other's opinions.”

"Connecting with people in my classes that I wouldn't have connected with without the help of ProjectConnect."

In response to this question, “What —if anything—are you taking away from ProjectConnect that you might apply elsewhere?”

"To be kind to others because you don't know their past.”

"I would take away that not everyone judges you so you should just be yourself.”

"People have more things in common with each other than I previously thought.”

Additional video testimonials can be viewed here.

How it works

Susan Mark-Sracic explains, “Students are grouped into small teams of four to five members for a period of five weeks. The program aims to encourage students to share their thoughts and feelings about their experiences and opinions on various topics such as the transition into college or social media. The structure of the program's meetings fosters personal and meaningful interactions, which enables students to develop deeper connections with each other.”

In addition to the discussions, participants also collaborate on a gratitude and campus community project. To encourage sustained connections, students meet for a ‘reunion' later.

“This approach is different from large group activities that can sometimes be daunting and may discourage participation,” Mark-Sracic says. “Overall, ProjectConnect provides a safe and structured environment that allows students to connect with their peers and build meaningful relationships.”

Now in its fourth semester at Kent State Geauga and Twinsburg Academic Center, the expanding program is being offered in two different ways. First is an opt-in, peer-led format, where a peer facilitator who has previously taken part in ProjectConnect and has been trained to facilitate it, leads small groups of four to six students through the program.

Also, ProjectConnect is offered as part of Dr. Evey’s General Psychology course. In this format, the class is broken into small groups once weekly for 45 minutes over five weeks for students to engage in the project. Dr. Evey and Rutherford facilitate the classroom version of ProjectConnect together, offering the sixth reunion session a few weeks after the project is complete.

Want to connect?

Look for ProjectConnect flyers around campus and on e-screens. To express interest, scan the QR code to take a survey. You can also email and then a counseling specialist will send you a link with registration details.

Sessions begin on a rolling basis each semester, starting around the third week. If there is enough interest, a second session will start around mid-semester. Each semester, the number of sessions depends on the number of interested students. Inquire at any time, so counselors can connect you to the group that begins next.

Dr. Evey, Mark-Sracic, and Rutherford are pleased that ProjectConnect provides a welcoming environment where students are encouraged to have meaningful conversations and deeper connections with peers they might otherwise never meet.

“It promotes the idea that our campus is a place where students belong and a place where they can find and maintain friendships,” Rutherford says.

That’s a connection worth protecting.

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POSTED: Monday, October 2, 2023 08:50 AM
Updated: Monday, October 2, 2023 08:55 AM
Estelle R. Brown