Rutgers student launches ‘buddy system on demand’ to address campus safety
NEW BRUNSWICK — A few years ago, Rutgers University student Daniel Reji was assigned a term paper in which he had to identify an on-campus problem and propose a solution.
Considering ever-growing awareness of campus sexual assaults, Reji used his research to start his own company, which now provides a pair of peer volunteers to escort any Rutgers student who does not feel comfortable walking home alone.
SafeHalo is described by Reji as a "judgment-free, stigma-free buddy system, on demand." He said his research showed that when college students traveled outside in groups of three or more, the odds of any individual in those groups being attacked decreased dramatically.
And since he and his classmates already made ample use of on-demand ridesharing services like Uber and Lyft, he conducted a survey across Rutgers and other Big 10 schools to see if fellow students might be receptive to a similar concept, except on foot.
The response Reji got was "overwhelmingly positive."
One initial challenge was figuring out how to alleviate the stigma of having to ask for help in the first place. That convinced Reji that his volunteers, called Halos, would not wear special uniforms; they'd just be "students just looking out for other students, and creating a technology that any Rutgers student would love to use. It'd be very easy to use, a seamless way to get home without anyone really knowing that you needed help," he said.
The next obstacle was finding and properly vetting those volunteers. Turns out that was easy: Reji said in SafeHalo's most recent round of recruiting, his team received 130 applications for 55 spots in the five-night-a-week program. The roster of Halos largely comprises student leaders on campus, recommended by their student organization presidents and peers.
"Would you trust this person? Would you walk home with them?" are just a couple of the questions Reji has posed to classmates of his volunteers, who are not just future EMTs or law enforcement hopefuls — they're a reflection of the Rutgers community as a whole.
"One of the prerequisites to being a Halo is having deep student involvement," Reji said. "That's something that we feel like, once you're in a campus organization, once you're involved in leadership programs, you've kind of already been vetted in terms of your sociability aspect."
Halos always travel in male-female pairs, and the service they provide is done with no questions asked, with the exception of asking the student who has requested them if he or she needs something essential like a bottle of water. In asking SafeHalo users to rate the Rutgers volunteers, the group has scored higher than a 5 out of 5 this semester.
Word — and with it, the SafeHalo brand — has quickly spread. Reji and business partner Jamie Farren, another student and SafeHalo's chief communications officer, traveled to Boston to launch the company at Emerson College. A program at the University of Oregon will start in the fall of 2017, and Reji said about 15 other schools have emailed them asking for help starting their own branches.
Click here to learn more about bringing SafeHalo to a school near you.
Patrick Lavery produces "New Jersey's First News" and is New Jersey 101.5's morning drive breaking news reporter. Follow him on Twitter @plavery1015 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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