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Lambda Alliance chair Bryce Nguyen said the purpose of the buddy program is to create an easy way for students to find peers in the LGBTQ community at Penn. Credit: Samantha Turner

Lambda Alliance, the umbrella organization for LGBTQ student groups on campus, has started a new buddy program that pairs LGBTQ undergraduate students with each other to help facilitate a sense of community during the online semester.

Students interested in the program must fill out a confidential survey with information like name, school, year, and major and whether they would like to be a mentor, mentee, or buddy. College senior and Lambda Alliance chair Bryce Nguyen said a mentor would be paired with a mentee, while a buddy would be paired with another buddy. Students can also indicate if they would like to be matched with a student with a similar gender identity or sexual orientation, he added.

While a mentor might help a mentee navigate Penn and offer words of advice, a buddy exists to serve a more casual relationship for students who are interested in a friendship, Nguyen said. Lambda Alliance has manually matched eighty students so far in the program and will notify more students of their matches by the end of October, he said. Once students have been paired in the program, Nguyen said it is up to them to establish a connection and build the relationship with their match.

Nguyen met with Lambda Alliance’s executive board in August to launch the program in order to create an easy way for students, especially first years, to find peers in the LGBTQ community at Penn during the remote semester.

“I felt like a formative part of my first-year experience was meeting and becoming friends with other gay people,” Nguyen said. “So when I was thinking about [the program] over the summer, one of the things I wanted to do was to at least try to create a sense of normalcy.”

While the program was created with a focus of helping first-year students connect with other Penn students, Nguyen said all undergraduate students can participate in the program as a buddy, mentor, or mentee.

“If you feel like you have any advice to pass on, that’s great; you can totally mentor a student,” Nguyen said. “But if you feel like you still have things you need to learn about Penn, that’s why the program existed, to just be there to ask for help.”

College sophomore Oliver Kaplan, who joined the buddy program as a mentee, said he attended virtual events hosted by the LGBT Center, but turned to the buddy program to create more personal relationships with other LGBTQ students.

As a transfer student, Kaplan said that having a mentor who can share his experience being an LGBTQ student at Penn is particularly valuable for him.

“It’s nice to know that you can just be out and be gay and be normal,” Kaplan said.

For many students who are coming out, receiving support from programs like the buddy program helps LGBTQ students feel comfortable with their identity, he added.

“To have something that affirms your identity and says you’re worth something, like a mentorship program that’s built solely on your identification as a queer person, I think that’s really important in and of itself,” Kaplan said.

College junior and Lambda Alliance political chair Blake Rubenstein joined the program as a mentor in order to serve as a resource for first-year students and help them feel connected to the Penn LGBTQ community, which he said can sometimes feel disconnected.

“A lot of people have said that the LGBTQ community at Penn feels fragmented, and although there are people who identify as part of the community here, it doesn’t feel interconnected or unified sometimes,” Rubenstein said. “We wanted to make sure that people feel like they always have someone to talk to and they can relate with [as] part of the community at Penn.”

Rubenstein, who currently serves as Kaplan’s mentor, said after he was paired with Kaplan, the two met for dinner and shared their experiences as LGBTQ students.

“I think there’s a lot of room for both mentor and mentee to grow as a result of the program,” Rubenstein said.

Director of the LGBT Center Erin Cross said the center previously had a formalized mentorship program that trained mentors before matching them with mentees. Because the LGBT center had to indefinitely halt the program's operations due to a lack of staff in fall 2019, Cross said she appreciates that the buddy program can take its place and help students navigate their identity as an LGBTQ person at Penn.

In addition to Cross, the LGBT Center currently only has one other full-time staffer, Malik Muhammad, who is the center's associate director, she said.

Although Lambda Alliance created the program to help facilitate connections during the virtual fall semester, Nguyen said he hopes that it will continue beyond the semester and eventually be able to operate in-person. He added that he would like to pair students with one another over the summer ahead of the start of the next academic year, so incoming first-year students can connect with at least one current Penn student before classes begin.

Cross pointed to the buddy program's high level of participation from first years and upperclassmen as an indicator that students are actively seeking ways to connect with one another during the online semester.

“It just shows how much people want and are missing a sense of community, and that we can always find creative ways to build that,” Cross said.