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Stepping onto a new college campus for the first time can be a terrifying experienc. Stepping onto a college campus where the 2014 Campus Climate survey revealed that 58 percent of LGBTQIA+ students “experienced exclusionary, intimidating, offensive and/or hostile conduct based on their sexual identity” as an LGBTQIA+ student is terrifying in a different way.

This is where the peer counselors at PRISM come in.

PRISM is a program for Cal Poly students who identify as LGBTQIA+ or are questioning, and Cal Poly students who are friends, family or roommates of someone who is LGTBQIA+ or questioning.

“It sends a message that we’re here and we’re supporting students,”Pride Center Coordinator Appy Frykenberg said.

Despite the positive outcomes, PRISM has been underutilized in recent years. At least 50 percent of peer counselors are not getting contacted regularly, Frykenberg said.

To reach more students, PRISM will be offering office hours in Muir Hall on Wednesday and Yosemite Hall on Thursday from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. PRISM peer counselors also hold educational and social events throughout the year.

When PRISM peer counselor and psychology senior Patrick Douglas began his first year at Cal Poly after graduating from a Catholic high school, he had only come out to a few close friends.

“I wanted to live genuinely, as my full and actual self, and I figured that this transition would be an opportune time to start,” Douglas said.

At the Week of Welcome (WOW) Club Showcase, Douglas found the Pride Center booth and began attending its events. His experience of coming out while starting college is one reason he wanted to be a PRISM peer counselor.

“I  wanted to help other kids going through transitions like I did and provide a resource that I certainly could have used my freshman year,” Douglas said. “And just to be a part of welcoming them into a loving, accepting and uplifting community.”

PRISM is different from Counseling Services because it allows for mentoring and peer understanding. The peer counseling model is valuable because the counselors have gone through extensive training and have real-life experience with issues students face.

“PRISM is an amazing resource because we provide a specific service for people seeking a specific type of help,” Douglas said.

After students are chosen to be peer counselors, they go through an eight-week training program which includes learning about terms, identity development and practice with scenarios, Frykenberg said. Representatives from Counseling Services and Safer also come to train students.

A unique feature about PRISM is the option for students to choose their own peer counselor. Students can see a counselor’s identity, orientation, hobbies and topics they have experience with on the PRISM website. Students can email a counselor of their choice, and choose to communicate electronically or meet in person.

“We look for people with different experiences on this campus,” Frykenberg said. “Sometimes folks really want to work with someone who has gone through something similar to them, or identifies in similar ways.”

Psychology junior Jonathan Schaffer became a PRISM peer counselor during his first year. He said he had been helped significantly by the LGBTQIA+ community at his high school, and wanted to give back to students in need.

Through his experience as a peer counselor, Schaffer, who plans to be a therapist, was able to talk to a parent who was worried about LGBTQIA+ resources at Cal Poly during a campus tour.

“This experience provided me with a base of skills that I could begin to apply to other counseling work,” Schaffer said.

Douglas plans on a future career as a marriage and family therapist.

“There’s a really perfect intersectionality with queer issues and family issues, such as coming out in a family environment, LGBT relationships and LGBT parents,” Douglas said. “PRISM is giving me some real-world experience in this field.”

Besides real-world experience, peer counselors also develop a further sense of empathy, Frykenberg said.

“Sometimes what I have heard is that (peer counselors) see something they went through in a different light, which can expand compassion,” Frykenberg said.

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