I recently had the privilege to hear the inspiring story of Cindy, a woman with a mental illness, who overcame many obstacles in order to earn her college degree. It made me think back to when I decided to attend college. I was a lost, 17-year-old high school graduate then, working a retail job for which I felt no passion. I desperately wanted to feel like I had purpose and college offered hope for a brighter future. Unfortunately, anxiety prevented me from going back to college for over a year. Figuring out the college processes was just too daunting for me.
Of course, I did eventually attend college and complete my degree. After speaking with Cindy, though, I looked back and wondered what it would have been like to compound my anxiety with a mental illness. What if, in addition to a lack of confidence, there were voices in my head that whispered that I wasn’t good enough? Or, if my mood changed from high to low without predictability? What if I dreaded the classroom because it may dredge up high school memories of bullying and teasing for being different?
It opened my eyes to see that individuals with mental illness have to overcome so much more in order to succeed. In addition to the typical daily concerns, they must learn to manage their illness and endure negative stigmas that surround them. It makes my story of overcoming fears pale in comparison.
Cindy shared that she has come a long way in her journey with mental illness, but life still presents its challenges. Medication for her is necessary, but at times it makes her sleepy and reduces her energy levels. She’s highly sensitive to what others say to her and must make an effort not to take things too personally. Large crowds are a source of discomfort so she prefers one-on-one interactions. Even then, she has to feel comfortable with a person and know a little about them to strike up a conversation. She’s okay with silence in social settings, but is keenly aware that others may be uncomfortable with this.
Still, she is in a much better place than she was before. She no longer drowns in feelings of shame and guilt, nor is she crippled with depression and paranoia. She credits her mental wellness to therapy, medication and work. It was, in fact, her therapist who encouraged her to return to college. Academics never came easily to her, but she decided after some consideration that college would give her a goal and a sense of purpose for her life.
She found it to be very challenging. Besides attending classes and learning the subjects, there were many other aspects that required her to push herself outside of her comfort zone. She was learning to interact with the other students, which was strenuous to her considering her dislike of crowds. She even advocated for herself with her teachers, advising them of required accommodations and asking questions about her course. Sometimes, she would collapse into bed at night exhausted by the mental strain.
There were some tough lessons as well. She made a friend in a woman who took many of the same classes with her. She confided in this friend about her mental illness and some of the struggles she faced. Later, this same friend made a disparaging remark to her about it, which hurt Cindy deeply. However, she learned two things from it: to be discerning of when to share and to speak up when you feel hurt.
At one point, her family and therapist asked her if she wanted to stop college because of the strain on her. So, she took a semester off college to regroup and re-evaluate. During this time, she realized that she loved the learning and she loved the challenge. She had come so far and wanted to finish.
And finish she did. With the exception of one C, she earned all A’s and B’s in her classes, graduating with 3.3 GPA from Temple University. On her last day of class, she walked out thinking, “I can’t believe I did that!” She was so proud to achieve something she never dreamed was possible. The sense of accomplishment overwhelmed her, gave her confidence, and broke down barriers to what she thought she was capable of.
Cindy acknowledges the support of family and friends was a big factor in helping her succeed. So, today she’s paying-it-forward by sharing her experiences with our College Plus students. She knows that college gives the students a goal and a purpose. She knows it can help them overcome challenges and push past their fears. She knows how working towards a goal can instill hope and change lives. So, she encourages and inspires them.
That’s our aim with our College Plus program. We want to give those individuals who face more obstacles the extra support and encouragement to set them on a path to success. As Cindy’s story shows, with hard work and dedication, it is possible.
This year, you can make a difference in someone’s life by supporting our College Plus program. Check out our donation page to learn more about our Giving Tuesday goal.
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