A new Hillel staffer who came to GW to help students connect with their Jewish identity has launched a project that takes her across campus to advertise “Free Advice” – giving her the chance to act as part-therapist, part-mentor and part-spiritual guru.
Since launching her “Free Advice” stations at spots across Foggy Bottom two weeks ago, Rachel Giattino has helped dozens of students talk through their problems, ranging from loneliness to relationship pitfalls, for hours each day.
“People have asked me, ‘What qualifies you to give advice?’ And my response is, ‘I never said it would be good advice,’” Giattino said. “I really want to just be here for the community.”
The senior associate for programming and student engagement at GW Hillel said the project is also part of a larger marketing campaign, which promotes her work at the Jewish community center.
Giattino, who came to GW last May, said she has wanted to make herself known as a resource to Jewish students on campus. But that idea has expanded to what she calls “Project Free Advice,” which allows her to connect with students from all backgrounds.
“I figured even if I didn’t meet Jewish students doing this, at least I’d have some interesting conversations and people would recognize me,” she said.
Giattino announces where and when she will be waiting to talk to students via her Twitter account, and said she plans to make herself available for the first ten week days of school. She said if enough people react positively, she will then try to arrange “Free Advice Tuesdays” for students to speak with her once a week.
Though some approach her jokingly, Giattino said many students have taken her project seriously and are willing to talk openly. One student, who had been struggling with mental illness for the past two years, approached Rachel Giattino in Kogan Plaza to talk about how he could help himself.
And not all of Giattino’s visitors are students trying to balance school, work and friends, she said.
“Some custodial staff or people who work at J Street have made comments like, ‘How do I get rich?’” Giattino said. “That’s when I tell them, ‘Stay positive.’”
Giattino said two types of students generally approach her: The first comes to her out of curiosity, sometimes just as a passing hello. Others do not even introduce themselves, but just sit down and start talking.
“I’ve realized that for those people, it’s not always the advice I give that matters. A lot of it is just them wanting someone to listen and validate their feelings,” she said.
Sophomore Elliot Reissner, a Hillel intern, said he was intrigued when he saw the large-print sign from across Kogan Plaza. As he got closer, he recognized Giattino and decided to sit down and inquire about his new Hillel position.
An awkward part of his job, Reissner said, is trying to identify students as Jewish without flat-out asking. Giattino suggested looking for iconic Jewish clothing and accessories or asking how they spent their summer as clues to identify a student’s Jewish heritage.
“She has witnessed and listened to a multitude of students from different parts of the country and different majors voice their concerns with GW,” Reissner said. “She not only has the time to take out of the day, but she also has the knowledge to give concrete advice.”
Her advice worked: he was able to chat up a student just by looking at her hamsa – a necklace bearing a religious symbol of a hand-shaped charm – and invited her to drop by Hillel.
Because she graduated from the University of Delaware two years ago, Giattino said she thinks she is able to offer a wider perspective to current students.
“I haven’t really put any effort into getting people to trust me – if they don’t want to open up to me that’s fine. But I think a lot of people who ask me for advice like the anonymity. And if they ask me what I’m doing, I tell them, ‘You know, I work at the Hillel, but I’m just here to listen,’” she said.