Winter 2008: Campus Beat

Hugs for free: Through Synergy, sophomore Alex Kappus (right) is doing his part to make the Emory campus—and the world—a friendlier place.

Bryan Meltz

The Un-Club

A more united community is the mission of new student group Synergy

Emory Humanitarians Honored for Diverse Service

Emory University students Zain Ahmed, Alex Kappus, Stephanie LaPointe, Anneliese Millones and Benish Shah were recently named the university's 2008 Humanitarian Award winners. The honor recognizes students who embody a spirit of volunteerism and sense of community, both on campus and off.

By Patrick Adams 08MPH

It was six o’clock on a warm September night, and Alex Kappus 10C was exhausted. For hours he had been engaged in a social experiment involving an unusual and, for some, unsettling public transaction. Stationed in the middle of Asbury Circle, at the bustling core of campus life, Kappus had been giving, to any of the dozens of passersby who would accept it, a free, and truly heartfelt, hug. “There was this one guy—he was huge,” says the sophomore from Cleveland. “He walked up, dropped his bag, and shouted, ‘Nobody ever hugs me!’ ” Kappus recalls the extreme embrace that ensued: “I was actually picked up off the ground.”

But Kappus, a philosophy-political science double major with a passion for public service, wasn’t testing a hypothesis or carrying out a class assignment. Rather, he and the twenty other students who had joined him had decided that giving out free hugs—on, as it was, International Free Hugs Day—would be a fitting way to announce the arrival at Emory of a new group with a novel mission. Synergy had begun its work.

“It’s simple,” says Kappus, who founded the group after attending a summer session of LeaderShape, a weeklong workshop that challenges participants to “lead with integrity” and to come up with a plan for improving their own communities. “We want to unite the campus and make it a friendlier, more inclusive place.”

That means breaking down social barriers—those that prevent strangers from sharing a lunch table or holding a door open with a smile.

service with a smile: “Volunteerism is enormous here,” says Kappus. “It’s the glue that holds us together.”

Bryan Meltz

Yet, adds Kappus, if such random acts of kindness are rare at Emory, it isn’t for lack of goodwill. “People say we don’t have school spirit because we don’t have a football team; we don’t have anything to rally around. But that’s not true,” says Kappus. “Volunteerism is enormous here—it’s the glue that holds us together.”

It’s also central to Synergy’s mission. Kappus envisions members fanning out into the community to pick up trash, build houses for Habitat for Humanity, or help out in a school or nursing home—and in doing so, coming closer together. “We put on a Halloween party for the kids at the Tucker Recreation Center back in October,” says Jenna Lamoreaux 10C, Synergy’s vice president for publicity. “We built a haunted house and helped set up a carnival—and it was such a blast.”

This year, Synergy is sponsoring the Atlanta Children’s Shelter by raising money for the nonprofit through T-shirt sales and concerts. And every month, Synergy bestows upon another organization at Emory its “Campus Crusader” award as a way of recognizing contributions to the community.

“These students impressed me from the start,” says Santa J. Ono, vice provost for academic initiatives. “I’ve had the privilege of working or studying at a number of universities”—Johns Hopkins, Harvard, Chicago, McGill, and University College London—“and Emory students are special. They have this extraordinary commitment to public service.”

One of Synergy’s earliest and most vocal supporters in the administration, Ono donated hundreds of LiveStrong-like jelly bracelets—a staple for any serious awareness campaign—for core members to distribute around school. According to Walt Ecton 10C, a sophomore political science major and Synergy’s co-vice president of event coordinating, the idea is to give the bracelets out upon witnessing a person reaching out to another, even in the smallest of ways. “It’s a visual representation of the pay-it-forward effect we want to achieve,” says Ecton. “And it’s a constant reminder to act in a way that you’re proud of.”

At Synergy’s weekly Saturday afternoon meeting, Mariam Karamali 10C pulls up a chair and introduces herself to the circle. She has come to help plan activities for the month ahead: the logistically challenging “letter movement,” whereby an uplifting message will be stuffed in the mailbox of every staff member on campus; the free hot chocolate in Asbury Circle; the scrawling on sidewalks in purple chalk (“Are you smiling?”); and the Banner of Thanks, which is to go up in the DUC, where passersby, it is hoped, will write on it things they’re thankful for.

“I got involved with Synergy during the Open-Door Movement,” Karamali explains. “We went to the DUC, and we stood there holding the doors open for everyone. Lots of people said ‘Thank you!’ ”

Jacqueline Woo 11C is the last to arrive. “I’m a freshman from Singapore,” she says, and later adds that she, too, opened doors at the DUC. “I was kind of nervous about seeming out of place. I wondered if people would give me stares, like, ‘Mind your own business,’ because that’s probably what they would do where I come from.”

But they didn’t. “Everyone seemed genuinely appreciative. And that’s when I started thinking, maybe there’s something to this idea—doing random little acts that could impact the larger community.”

In the wake of the shootings at Virginia Tech last April, a more unified community seems a good thing. “The real challenge,” Ono says, “is to create a seamless net, linking peers, faculty members, and health professionals to help those in need.” And, he adds, “an inclusive community can certainly help prevent such tragedies.”

Inclusiveness—that’s what Synergy is all about.

“That’s one idea we really want to get across to people,” says Kappus. “That everyone at Emory is in synergy, so to speak. Everyone’s a member.”

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