Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - April 22, 2011

'Speed-friending' and a sympathetic ear

Student-led group boosts connections on the Gunn campus

A student group responding to a "suicide cluster" in the Gunn High School community has emerged as a national model of how to promote a sense of caring on a diverse, high-achieving campus.

The student organization ROCK ("Reach Out, Care, Know") recently earned the Positive Peer Influence Award at a Santa Clara County-wide celebration of "asset champions" sponsored by the nonprofit Project Cornerstone.

Gunn student "rocks" also have been asked to share their strategies with the national peer-counseling group Sources of Strength for use in schools around the country.

Gunn senior Mia Howard, a co-chair of the ROCK along with Sophia Jiang and Paula Jung, said she joined the organization last year after being inspired by a school-wide assembly following several suicides.

"It created this overflow of emotions, and tons of students signed up to be rocks," Howard said.

"Basically, throughout the year we would have trainings to be peer counselors."

ROCK representatives make themselves available to talk with any fellow student in need of a sounding board or a sympathetic ear.

The peer counselors can easily be identified because their names are posted in every classroom at Gunn.

ROCK also sponsors activities to boost student connections on campus, including "speed-friending" and an exercise called "six degrees of separation," designed to let students know how closely they are connected to people they view as strangers.

Speed-friending is similar to speed dating, Howard said.

"We tell people about ourselves — people we'd usually never talk to.

"During high school people tend to stick to a certain crowd, but speed-friending allows you to open up to eight or 10 people you don't usually talk to. And it doesn't have to be awkward because everyone's doing the same thing."

ROCK was launched in the fall of 2009 after students Joyce Liu and her study buddy Esther Han realized they'd been one another's emotional rock following the suicides.

Around the same time, Liu launched the website "Henry M. Gunn Gives Me Hope" (http://hmggmh.wordpress.com) on which members of the Gunn community post stories about good things, large and small, that transpire at the school.

Liu got her idea from another website, www.givesmehope.com, which she said she was reading at the time.

"I thought, 'Wouldn't it be cool if we had something like that just for Gunn. There are a lot of really small things here that make people feel really nice, but we don't necessarily record it or remember to thank the person.

"It's the really simple things people do, but they just make you smile," Liu said at the time.

— Chris Kenrick

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