GSC expands REFS program for peer-support and stress relief

New resources to be available to MIT graduate students through REFS initiative, changes to come in February

Beginning in February, the Resources for Easing Friction and Stress (REFS) initiatives will expand to include a program whose services will be available to the general graduate-student community.

The new program called Institute-wide REFS (iREFS) will be launched, and will exist alongside the departmental REFS (dREFS) peer-support program currently operating in nine departments at MIT and made available to graduate students through their respective departments.

Francesco Bellei G, vice-president of the Graduate Student Council (GSC), said the iREFS program is applying the structure of the dREFS programs at the institute level with the goal of “bringing this resource to all the graduate students, and possibly post-docs, on campus.” The volunteers staffing the REFS programs are themselves known as REFS, and similar to departmental REFS, students who apply to be iREFS are required to undergo a 40-hour training program in conflict management.

Dean for Student Life Chris Colombo commended what he called the “unique peer-based approach” of the REFs program, which provides “peer-to-peer support in one-on-one sessions focusing on specific issues of concern to the student” and can refer the student “to other services that are part of MIT’s student support network,” such as the Mental Health and Counseling Service. Dean Colombo also said the program helped “advocate for the graduate-student community by focusing on issues that are shared by community members.”

REFS are probably people “that students would feel more comfortable reaching out to, as opposed to going through official channels first,” Andrea Dubin G, co-chair of the GSC Housing & Community Affairs committee, said.

REFS are, according to Bellei, “not judgemental [and] are oftentimes just there to listen.” Bellei said that without breaking the confidentiality agreement, “we can start gathering some data on what are the most common issues that students on campus go through, and [by] being connected with the GSC we can try to advocate for [solutions] with the MIT administration or with particular departments.”

“[The iREFS program is] not meant to replace anything; it’s meant to give somebody an additional resource that they can go to, that maybe they feel more comfortable going to,” Dubin said, adding that her hope is to build a network with both iREFS and dREFS working together. “dREFS are going to take department-related issues … and iREFS are a more broad umbrella dealing with interdepartmental issues and interpersonal issues that people don’t want to go within their department for. I don’t think it’s feasible for [the iREFS program] to be giant, but we want everybody to know about it, to feel like it is a resource they can use.”

At present, the program has 15 iREFS, of which 14 are graduate students and one is a post-doctoral student.

“When we are selecting REFS,” said Dubin, “one of the things that we look at is what groups they can help. We really try to make sure that the pool of iREFS that we’re getting could … reach out to as” diverse a population as possible. This included asking applicants what languages they were comfortable speaking, and being sensitive to the fact that groups like international students and LGBT students face their own set of challenges.

Bellei said that carrying out the work of a REFS is “something that many times occurs spontaneously,” and is not “something for which you can have office times — like would be [the case in] a normal job. [For example, if] you’re talking to some peer, and you hear that someone is having some trouble ... at that moment, that REFS switch turns on.” He planned to do more recruiting in June to reach the target of 20 iREFS.

Dean for Graduate Education Christine Ortiz has commended the GSC “for spearheading the effort to expand the REFS program via iREFS,” adding that “the expansion will provide all graduate students with a compassionate, understanding, and low-barrier resource to help them mitigate and manage the stresses of graduate school and deal with challenging situations and conflicts.”

More information on the REFS programs can be found at