By Mary Catherine Gaston
As a high school student in Baxley, Georgia, population 4,400, Briana Hayes had her heart set on attending college in Atlanta. But when her campus visit in the capital city did not spark feelings of attachment to the place, she followed her parents’ advice and agreed to give the University of Georgia a look. It was love at first sight.
“Everything just seemed so big—the buildings, the buses, the amount of people, the residence halls,” the junior health promotion major now recalls. “Coming from a small town, I think that was what really attracted me to UGA.”
And though the vastness seemed exciting at first, once she was settled in to campus life her first semester, she began to feel like a fish out of water.
“During my first semester, I typically spent the day by myself. There were many days that the only people I spoke to were my roommates,” she says.
Briana remembers how hard it was for her to imagine herself staying at UGA for three more years, and it was not because UGA was not a great school.
“Going from knowing everyone in the town you grew up in to almost no one at all is difficult,” she explains. “I distinctly remember longing for a community while I was adjusting to college.”
Intangible as it is, community is a precious part of rural life, and even moreso for someone as connected to her hometown as Briana. The daughter of a middle school administrator and pastor, Briana felt completely lost as a freshman at UGA. For the first time in her life, she felt like a number.
Not one to call it quits too quickly, she set out to make connections at a university with an enrollment twice that of her home county’s population. As a sophomore, she was elected to serve as a Student Government Association senator and began working to make a difference in the lives of other students from rural areas, who make up roughly 15 percent of UGA’s student body.
“I noticed that not many students at UGA were from rural areas, and I knew that rural students might face a few unique challenges just as I did,” Briana recalls.
She enlisted the help of other SGA members and faculty and began reaching out to rural students to find out what could be done to help them transition to Athens life. The work she began in the fall of 2018 led to the concept for a new student organization, RISE, which is an acronym for Rural students Igniting Success in Education. On top of half a dozen other commitments on campus, including a year of service as Miss University of Georgia 2019, Briana now serves as president of the organization she founded.
In addition to providing a home-away-from-home feeling to UGA’s rural students, RISE also engages them in efforts to “give back” to their new community. Preparing and serving meals at the Athens Area Homeless Shelter is just one way the students build connection in an otherwise overwhelmingly crowded place.
As spring semester 2020 began, Briana and her fellow RISE members were eagerly looking forward to a new partnership with the university’s admissions team, in which RISE members would reach out to newly admitted, future UGA students from rural areas. Though the COVID crisis prevented the undertaking, RISE leaders continued working together—remotely—on another project they are enthusiastic about.
“Our executive team is now working on a guidebook for rural students that will provide them with the information they need to apply to college,” she says. And they’re using the club’s social media accounts to share tips for success in online classes and to “shine a light” on members of the group.
They plan to pick up where they left off with the letter writing to rural students when classes resume in the fall, and they also plan to begin an ambassador program through which current RISE members serve as on-campus liaisons to their former high schools. Even better, Briana is excited to know that, when UGA’s Class of 2024 arrives in Athens this fall, RISE will be an established organization they can rely on from day one.
While Briana has accomplished more than the average college student during her three years at UGA, RISE is one achievement and contribution that is near and dear to her heart. From a lost, lonely freshman who contemplated calling it quits to an honors student, student government leader, Miss UGA and RISE founder, the Appling County girl is a shining example of all that rural students can accomplish within a strong support system. And if Briana Hayes has made a difference in one rural student’s will to continue in spite of the challenges, then she feels her purpose in choosing UGA has been accomplished.
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