For Briana Hayes, being named Miss University of Georgia changed her whole college experience.
The title expanded her network and introduced her to people across campus and the state. She represented UGA at fundraisers, judged pageants and judged a lot of talent shows. “It was a lot of fun and a lot of traveling,” she said.
“I feel like I’m more connected to the university because of the title—the people it allowed me to meet and relationships it allowed me to form,” she said.
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Hayes is from Baxley, a tiny town of 4,400 people that sits two hours west of Savannah. And she wanted to find another way for students from rural towns to make connections, so in fall 2019 she started RISE, Rural students Igniting Success in Education, a student organization for rural students to come together.
The transition from a rural town to a large university isn’t easy, said Hayes, and she doesn’t want any students to feel isolated.
“Coming to campus I didn’t know anybody,” she said. “There were a few people from my hometown, but I never really saw them. When you go to a big school, you don’t have people to introduce you to others.”
She wanted rural students to have an easy way to get to know other students or just learn the campus culture.
The structure of RISE is based partly on Hayes’ experience at UGA.
On the bus, she didn’t have any friends to wave to her. In classes, the culture is to skip a seat between the next student (pre COVID-19). At the dining commons, it’s not custom to go up and ask to sit at a table. “It was hard to find where my place was,” she said.
The group has had a few meetings and even has a group text of more than 80 students. They’ll be doing hybrid virtual and in-person events this fall, and their first event is Sept. 14. Hayes wants to expand the organization to start a letter writing campaign to encourage rural students to attend the University of Georgia. She envisions a future ambassadorship program and visits to rural high schools to talk about applying to college, taking the SATs and ACTs, how to apply for scholarships and what life is like at UGA. Then, when rural students are on campus the organization aims to help with student retention, connecting them to resources like the Honors Program, the Tate Society, the ALL Georgia Program and internships. She wants to create a community for rural students.
“What keeps me going is whenever RISE has tables at events, I meet another rural student who has had a hard time transitioning and wants to be a part of RISE.”
Hayes did a few pageants when she was little. And then her senior year of high school, after a mock interview, her guidance counselor encouraged her to consider pageants—especially in the Miss Georgia circuit.
She cringes when she recounts her sparkly pink dress and “worst walk in the world” at her high school pageant.
Needless to say, she didn’t make the top 10.
She put in more work and went on to win the Miss Altamaha Scholarship Pageant. The next year, she won Miss UGA.
Hayes genuinely likes being on stage, and likes the evening gowns. She even likes the interview portion. “I oddly like answering questions.”
Hayes is a fourth-year student and health promotion major. Health is important to her. She struggled with an eating disorder while doing pageants. Her dad has high blood pressure, and her grandfather died of lung cancer.
“I saw how important health was, not only for me personally, but for the people close to me. I want to learn more about this to learn how to help other people be healthy.”
“Your education affects how much money you’re going to make. The amount of money you make affects your health in the long run. People who are impoverished are more likely to be sick.”
Her interest is how “African American students get into college, and stay in college, which will improve their economic status, and improving economic status will improve their health in the long run.”
She previously did research with Darris Means, formerly an associate professor in the Early College of Education, working on an intervention to help rural high school students get into college.
For Hayes, going to college was a way to challenge herself. “I wanted to go to a bigger place and be exposed to new people, new ideas, new cultures, new backgrounds. You don’t grow unless you’re challenged. You can be comfortable, but there’s no growth in that. I have grown so much from sticking the challenge out.”
For more about RISE, see the group’s Facebook page or Instagram.
This story is provided to the Banner-Herald and OnlineAthens.com via UGA Today, part of the University of Georgia public relations department.