Home Away From Home Program: Forging Connections Across Decades and Miles


Kayleigh Silverstein

U alum Karen Ashton (right) stands with student Emma Richardson (left) in front of the Cleone Peterson Eccles Alumni House on the University of Utah’s campus on Thursday, Oct. 6, 2022. (Photo by Kayleigh Silverstein | The Daily Utah Chronicle)

By Kayleigh Silverstein, Special Projects Managing Editor, News Writer


With rent in Salt Lake City rising faster in the last two years than the previous 10 and students who were relying on on-campus housing being added to a long waitlist, some University of Utah students had to switch gears to find alternative housing options.

For Emma Richardson, a fifth-year studying undergraduate studies, this meant moving into the spare room of a Sugar House home — a home owned by Karen Ashton, the senior manager for networking and mentorship at the U’s Office of Alumni Relations who graduated from the U in 1980.

Home Away From Home

In the summer of 2022, the U launched its pilot Home Away From Away program, where students in need of housing are connected with alumni who are willing to house them. Students are matched with alumni based on their interests and needs through the Forever Utah Alumni Network.

Dawn Young, the program manager for Home Away From Home, said at first, the response from students lagged. But after they dropped the price from $5,000 a semester to $2,600 a semester, they received more interest. 

“We bring U faculty, staff & alumni together with U students — our future alumni — meeting growing student housing needs and creating meaningful connections,” Young said in an email interview. 

The program was created for two main reasons: alumni wanted to be more involved and the U is planning to grow — according to Young, students need housing, but they also need “access to community and connection.”

“This program is intended to meet the needs of students,” she said. “Housing, resources, connection, community, access, mentorship and belonging. There are a lot of ways that this program could grow and scale, but meeting [these] needs will always be central to our vision.”

According to Ashton, The Office of Alumni Relations sent out emails to alumni living within 40 miles of campus but found that most students did not have their own form of transportation, and preferred a home within 10 miles. Interested alumni filled out a profile introducing themselves, including preferences for their students like religious affiliation and gender.

Students filled out a similar profile, sharing their studies and what kind of household they envisioned. 

“We have everything from their daughter’s old bedroom up on 18th Avenue, to my basement apartment, to almost a full house or a full mother-in-law situation,” Ashton said. A mother-in-law apartment is a small, private living area within a house.

Ashton said distance from campus seemed to be the biggest barrier to finding the right fit.

Each host and student also had to get a criminal background check and send three non-familial references in.

In an interview with the Salt Lake Tribune, Bethany Hardwig, the director of special projects and outreach at the U’s Office of Alumni Relations, said the program is trying to mirror the U’s Housing and Residential Education crisis response methods, so students in the program have access to necessary resources if they feel unsafe. However, HRE’s commitment to safety has been called into question lately.

According to Young, the program prioritizes safety, so it may not be the best option for students in need of a quick housing solution.

Typically it takes at least three days to complete the security measures,” she said. “Because of this, we were not the fastest options for students in a hurry. However, we also will not decrease the safety requirements because that is incredibly important and central to this program.”

Some students were placed on the first day of school, with one even being placed in late September. While the program was set to accommodate 25 students, according to Ashton, only nine ended up matching and placing with alumni.

More than a House

Ashton, who graduated from the U in 1980, opened up her Sugar House home to Richardson, who had to find housing quickly after her landlord increased monthly rent by $300. Before moving in with Ashton, she considered dropping out of the U and living with her parents because she wasn’t able to afford the rent increase.

About two or three days before school started, Richardson moved in. It was rushed, but they worked together to make arrangements. 

Ashton and Richardson had met prior to the program matching them. Since her major draws from multiple disciplines, Richardson was in need of advisors from various backgrounds and reached out to find an academic mentor.

“So I was particularly flattered because there have been 40 years of communication students between my degree and hers, so I thought it was interesting and unusual that she reached out to me as sort of an academic mentor,” Ashton said. “But I’m thrilled and that’s how we met and then her housing kind of going away and this program launching all kind of happened at the same time.”

The program is not just about alleviating housing issues though, it’s also about forging connections. 

“My kids have moved out, and I have one who’s a U alum, and I kind of miss having somebody who’s involved in the academic part of campus,” Ashton said. “And having met Emma, just to talk about her program, I was like, ‘I could find somebody like Emma and it would be a win-win.'”

Richardson said she now has a connection and avenue of community she would not have had otherwise, in addition to having material living conditions taken care of.

“And it’s really great that just reaching out for help, communicating with people and resources at the university has been able to get me the accommodations I need to focus on school,” Richardson said.

Ashton said alumni have a lot to offer students because they have the ability to sustain real, meaningful connections outside of offering housing. According to her, alumni are not just there when a student graduates — they are available to support a student throughout their whole education.

“The housing shortage on campus I don’t think will ever be solved,” Ashton said. “And there are a lot of people that just commute from home —  I did as a student — but even with the new Ivory Homes thing going up, that’s not going to fix how many students wanted to be on campus.”

Richardson said this new place has been working out quite well, with its proximity to campus and accommodations taken care of.

“I’m able to have a lovely backyard where I can just hang out and focus on school,” she said.

She’s also joined Ashton’s family for game night and chats on the patio. When their schedules align, Ashton will bring her to campus.

“It’s been easy, she’s tidier and more polite than my children,” Ashton said. “And just she’s a great addition actually, to our family.”

The Home Away From Home Program has 15 available spots for the upcoming semester, with hopes for it to be continued next year.


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