Finding home away from home: Alumna fosters belonging

Alumna Cat Moore aches a five-week workshop class called “CLICK!” which aims to cultivate a culture of belonging among students. (Photo courtesy of Annie Hock)

Nearly 20 years ago, a fire drill went off at the USC New North dorms where the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life’s Director of Belonging, Cat Moore, lived as a freshman. She looked through her window and saw people gathering in their pajamas outside the building. Then, after touching the door to make sure it wasn’t a real fire, she hid in her closet out of fear of being among people.

“In that moment, I realized I would rather go down in flames than be in a situation with other human beings where I [would] feel so much social anxiety,” Moore said. 

Moore, who graduated from USC in 2005 with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy, said she used to struggle with isolation and social anxiety and was terrified of rejection as an 18-year-old freshman. Moore’s life turned around 10 years later during her pregnancy, as her son helped her overcome her difficulty with connecting to people, she said. Since then, she has been helping individuals deal with similar challenges.

The Office of Religious and Spiritual Life houses Moore’s five-week workshop classCLICK!,” which is taught through the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life’s Campfire initiative. This is a noncredit, free class available to all staff, faculty and students to join. Moore said the goal is to create a culture in which everyone feels that they belong.

“Being chronically lonely was a million times more painful than childbirth,” Moore said. “I know that those are different kinds of pain, but that kind of deep soul level pain where you feel like you do not have a place in the human family — which was what my experience was — it was severe.”

Three years ago, the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life brought in Moore while they were looking for ways to help USC students with mental health issues and to reduce suicidality, according to Senior Associate Dean of Religious and Spiritual Life Reverend Jim Burklo. Burklo, one of USC’s chaplains, invited Moore to become the director of Belonging. 

Burklo said several suicides in recent years prompted him to create Campfires — the ORL’s initiative to encourage closer relationships and friendship at USC. While Campfires includes programs such as “CLICK!” it also includes “Campfire” meetings to cultivate belonging. Burklo and Moore lead Campfires during holidays, but anyone can follow the guidelines online to learn how to lead one at any time. 

The guidelines, which include “stoking the Campfire” (posing the first question to the group) and “closing the Campfire” (creating a five-minute space for reflection), apply to both Zoom meetings and in-person park meetings, pre-pandemic, where campers would gather around a fire and get to know each other through various community-building exercises. 

“Some of these students that committed suicide had perfect Facebook lives,” Burklo said. “Their social media presentation was perfect, and everything’s hunky dory. So you just realized a lot of these relationships that people have are superficial, and a big problem on a campus full of very ambitious people is transactional relationships.” 

The natural reaction for mental health problems, Burklo said, is the direct approach of essential mental health services. Several biological and social factors have been linked to mental health, not just issues with belonging, according to the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 

Mental health is important as it includes emotional, psychological and social well-being; 50% of Americans are diagnosed with a mental health disorder at least once in their lives, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Those suffering from mental health problems should seek professional help. Helplines and confidential services are available through the CDC’s website

“The nature of this mental health problem partly is cultural,” Burklo said. “So what you need is an orthogonal intervention, where you do things that don’t look like they’re addressing a problem at all. It doesn’t look like a mental health intervention at all, but it might have [the same] effect. That’s what we’re doing.”

Discussions at Belonging revolve around what questions to ask to create meaningful relationships and may involve talking about what feelings or challenges might prevent these connections, Moore said. These spaces are not therapy for mental health problems, but they are providing an alternative method to build community and support. 

Burklo said Moore’s class is not only a place for learning to connect with people, but it also trains student leaders and University staff on how to build community. In her class, Moore teaches leaders to structure their clubs so relationships can form among members. She emphasizes tools such as active listening and the importance of eye contact when someone is speaking during a gathering.

“[Moore’s] own journey informs her interest in this,” Burklo said. “It’s like ‘I suffered all those years, and I want other people to not suffer like I did. What can we do to make our society a place where there’s more friendship and connection and community?’” 

Moore’s work encompasses various approaches with a focus on listening to individuals and their concerns. Practices include teaching gratitude, forgiveness and empowerment for productivity.

Moore said she wants these practices to become student-led and is developing a future training focused specifically on student leaders, as well for professors who may be interested in supporting students’ social lives.

Besides teaching at USC, Moore hosts her own website where people can contact her as a speaker, counselor or coach. Moore also writes about “How to Create New Family When You Live Far from Home” and analyzes the role of relationships and integrity in systemic change within the Los Angeles Unified School District.

“[Moore] is authentic, she’s empathetic, she’s compassionate,” said Dean of Religious Life Varun Soni, who is also the vice provost of campus wellness and crisis intervention. “I would like [students] to know that they’re seen, they’re heard, that they belong, that they matter, and that they are loved.”