By SAMANTHA SMITH, Staff Writer | Published December 26, 2019
KENNESAW—St. Teresa of Kolkata believed that something as simple as a smile could change the world.
During her lifetime, she spoke of how a smile can have an impact on others.
One of her many ideas on the importance of a smile resonated with Kristen Coutinho, 22, a recent graduate of Kennesaw State University. Inspired by St. Teresa and her idea that, “Peace begins with a smile,” Coutinho created the student organization, “Reason to Smile at KSU,” a student organization that engages, empathizes and motivates peers to help create a more welcoming campus community.
A commuter school, Kennesaw State University serves nearly 38,000 students. Two years into her undergraduate career, Coutinho realized the negative impact a commuter campus can have on the ability of students to interact with one another.
“I wanted a way to brighten people’s days for the sake of brightening their days, to help our peers feel a little more connected to the campus community,” said Coutinho.
The need to feel connected and St. Teresa’s words were the beginning of Reason to Smile. While not religiously affiliated, she received support from the Catholic Center at KSU.
Students involved in the group volunteer their time each week in different places around campus to have friendly one-on-one conversations with their peers. The goal is to listen and talk with students, to hear their concerns and raise spirits. Hours served are counted towards community service. Member meetings provide training on how to have positive conversations. Students are not therapists or counselors but instead serve as peer advocates.
Coutinho said that she wanted to help people feel heard and not feel stuck in the daily motions.
One of the first efforts of the group was to pass out sticky notes to students on campus with encouraging words and quotes. Notes included messages such as, “Today is your opportunity to build the tomorrow you want,” and “Train your mind to see the good in every situation.”
When Coutinho and other members passed out the notes, students appreciated their efforts.
“For those who need it, it actually brings them a smile,” she said.
The group also hosted a bake sale with the Human Services Club for World Kindness Day on Nov. 13. In addition to the treats, students were able to pick up positivity notes and write what makes them smile on makeshift chalkboards. Reasons for smiling listed on the board included Jesus, friends, deep connections and seeing other people being happy.
Coutinho graduated in May with a bachelor’s degree in biology and minor in psychology. She plans to get a doctoral degree in genetics and developmental biology.
Now serving as a mentor since graduation, she hopes to increase membership and raise awareness of counseling and other services available on campus for students who may need help during difficult times. She also hopes the group will continue to be a listening ear for student concerns.
It doesn’t take a psychologist to show kindness, said Coutinho.
“One little act of kindness can make such a difference to people,” she said.