COVID-Pals provides peer-to-peer interaction


Kimberly Belser

Ege Gungor Onal left his friends and family in Istanbul, Turkey for the fall semester. Once he returned to campus, he learned students were required to self-isolate and quarantine on campus as a part of COVID-19 mitigation efforts.

Away from his friends and family back home, Onal, a junior in bioengineering, imagined how daunting the isolation and loneliness could be for those students, so he created COVID Pals, a student-led organization which connects students at the university. "Peer to peer interaction", he said, "is more impactful because we tend to understand our circumstances better through discussion."

First, he developed the COVID Pals website including a meeting scheduling system and other resources available to students such as the Counseling Center. Then he reached out to his friends and the community, incorporating volunteers into the program. 

Onal said he originally began the organization to connect quarantining students who tested positive or came into contact with an infected individual with the rest of the campus. 

“But then I thought, it shouldn't be confined only to that, it should also include people who have worries about COVID-19, or people who just want to talk to someone about anything in general,” he said. “Sometimes having a random person [with] a different outlook can be great to see the situation from another perspective, to get a new way of thinking, to solve a problem or to try and overcome an obstacle.”

Aidan Rogers, a freshman studying bioengineering, said he originally heard about the organization during class, where Onal, who is an engineering learning assistant (ELA), spoke about the opportunity and encouraged students to volunteer.

Rogers said the difficulty of those being isolated in quarantine was a major reason for him becoming a volunteer. 

“I would imagine it would be even more difficult to have to go back into like a quarantine period now when you know people are still being able to go out and see other people, and you're basically the only one who isn't able to,” he said.

An opportunity solely for students at Illinois, COVID Pals’ social initiative is “designed to serve as a helping hand for students with concerns about COVID-19 in our campus,” according to the program’s website. 

“We are stronger as a community and we will get over this pandemic together,” the website statement says. 

Onal feels the worries students are facing now can stem from many things; their academic workload, social lives, and general worries are compounded with the concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic.  

“Basically, once all of those issues are coupled with the COVID-19 situation, it becomes even worse because you really can't do anything about it, because you have to isolate yourself, you have to be on your own, you shouldn't be seeing any faces in person,” he said. “And I thought that in order to kind of alleviate that pressure from people, it would be better to have this kind of interaction, social interaction, at least, even with random students, just talking about anything in general.”  

The program has started and is available for students, students can schedule meetings from the COVID Pals website for the specific date and time they wish. The invitation is then directed to Onal, who transfers the meeting request to Google Calendar so the other volunteers can determine which meetings they can accommodate based on their availability. After one of the volunteer’s confirm, Zoom meeting links are sent to both parties. 

The organization is currently trying to get the word out to faculty and resources so the program can be known to students, after which volunteers will meet with each other to reflect on their meetings, discuss any obstacles that they face, or ideas as to how they can hold more meaningful meetings. Onal said the organization is also considering facilitating group meetings to connect students who share the same interests and concerns to pave the way for more meaningful and impactful meetings.

“As a volunteer, I hope to bring meaningful connections to the people in isolation and quarantine," Rogers said. “And to try to relieve them and give them something to look forward to within a week, or on a day.”