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Circle Up conversations empower students to discuss agency and intimacy

  • University News
  • Health and Wellness
  • School of Medicine
  • School of Social Work

Undergraduates are talking with one another about personal experiences — including sexual agency, consent, relationships and identity — through the help of a new dialogue series.

Circle Up aims to prevent sexual violence by encouraging students to think about their own sexual agency and to respect their peers.

Previously known as “Conversation Circles,” the pilot program was launched in the fall of 2022 by an interdisciplinary team that includes students, staff and faculty from the Office for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (OEDI), the School of Medicine and the School of Social Work. Two part-time OEDI employees, Dev Hayostek and Willa Campbell, both graduate students pictured above, facilitate the discussions.

“Every group has that one person who breaks the ice, and I’m always very grateful for that,” said Hayostek, who is working toward their master’s degree in the School of Social Work. “I always emphasize that I’m not an expert, I’m not here to monitor them — I’m just here to facilitate the conversation.

Circle Up conversations are strictly voluntary, and each circle is composed of students who already know each other through a club, sport or other on-campus group. The facilitators are there to get the conversation started and to create an inclusive environment, Hayostek said. Once it’s rolling, the students take over.

“I try to share some of my experiences with them,” Hayostek said. “I do think it helps that although I work for the University, I’m not a professor or faculty member. Instead, I can relate to them as a student.”

Funded through a $75,000 Pitt Seed Grant from the University, the conversation circles are a new outreach effort of the Sexual Violence Prevention and Education Office in OEDI.

Carrie Benson, senior manager for prevention and education, said Circle Up was inspired by a similar program at Stanford University but has evolved and grown beyond the original idea.

“It’s all about creating an open dialogue so that students can learn from one another,” Benson said. “Willa and Dev are there to make sure it’s a safe space and to provide validation, when needed. But most of the growth and learning that happens comes from students talking to one another.”

How it works

Each student group that signs up for a conversation circle is asked to commit to two 90-minute sessions with 10 to 20 people. The gatherings are held in each group’s own meeting space to make sure the conversations are happening in a familiar, comfortable setting.

We ended up getting pretty personal, and coming out of there, I really felt like I knew my co-workers in SAFE a lot better.

Alexa Pierce

At the end of the second conversation circle, each student group receives a $250 grant of its own. More than 200 students participated in the program during the fall semester, Benson said.

“We survey students both before and after they participate,” Benson said. “The outcomes have been really exciting. Students say things like, ‘I’ve never thought about consent and sexual agency before,’ or ‘I’ve never really thought about what I wanted from a relationship before.’ It’s very empowering.”

Campbell, a second-year graduate student in the School of Public Health, said some participants come into the conversations prepared to talk about intimacy, agency and consent, but others have had little to no sexual education before arriving at the University.

“Every time I’ve had one of these conversations, I’ve been both really impressed and taken aback at the range of what some of their knowledge is,” Campbell said. “Some of them had far better experiences in sex ed than I did, and they learned quite a bit. For others, sex ed was nonexistent.”

One frequent point students raised, she said, is that they feel a great deal of pressure to succeed academically and prepare for a career while they also juggle interpersonal relationships and their own sexual health.

“College life puts a lot of pressure on you,” Campbell said. “We talk about how that impacts your expectations and your own agency. What do you think is expected of you? How does it make you feel? We’ve had a lot of awesome conversations around that.”

Some students also have discussed body image issues, including eating disorders, they’ve developed because of pressure to be perceived as “more attractive.”

Alexa Pierce, a junior majoring in law, criminal justice, and society in the College of General Studies, learned about Circle Up through her work as a peer educator in the University’s Sexual Assault Facilitation and Education (SAFE) program. She said wasn’t sure what to expect.

“I thought it might be more of a surface-level exploration of issues,” Pierce said. “We ended up getting pretty personal, and coming out of there, I really felt like I knew my co-workers in SAFE a lot better.”

Pierce said she’d recommend Circle Up to any student group.

“Whether you’re going into it with some knowledge or none at all, I think you come out of it understanding your peers a little better, and you may be able to assist them before a crisis happens,” she said. “Don’t let fear stop you from wanting to do it.”

The Seed Grant funding the project is for the 2022-23 academic year only, but Benson and her team are working on a proposal to extend and expand the program in future years.

“We have so much more work we want to do,” she said. “These are really important conversations that students are having, and we want this to be an ongoing initiative in years to come.”


— Jason Togyer

How to join

Contact Carrie Benson at carrie.benson [at] pitt.edu or 412-648-7860. Learn more at OEDI’s website.