Willow Rodriguez ’21

Senior Willow Rodriguez had a rough time as a teen, and she brought those challenges with her when she came to college. “I knew about depression and anxiety and PTSD but didn’t see them working in my own life,” she said. “They very much were.”

Rodriguez is the only child of a single mom. One thing she feels shaped her life the most was a misdiagnosis her mother received when Rodriguez was 6 years old. Her mother had a thyroid tumor; doctors determined she had bipolar disorder. That diagnosis meant prescriptions for seven different psychiatric medications.

“The meds took a toll,” Rodriguez remembered, noting how challenging it was for her mother to be a single parent and go to work and school under their influence. Her mother was not very present to Rodriguez in those childhood years, and they did not have much of a connection or relationship.  “I had to navigate a lot of things on my own,” she added.

Looking back, Rodriguez realizes she didn’t have healthy coping mechanisms as a teen. “I was trying to take care of myself and my mom and be there for her emotionally,” Rodriguez said.

“I wanted to fix her and make it better. My issues grew from that.”

Willow Rodriguez caving a pumpkin in Baird Lounge
Willow Rodriguez ’21 carving a pumpkin during Berea’s Fall Festival. The socially-distanced event allowed students to enjoy some fun and down time in an otherwise hectic fall schedule.

That reality hit her when she arrived at college. At a talk during orientation, aspects of the conversation triggered some of the trauma of her past. Berea College counselor Josh Johnston was there and encouraged her to seek therapy. She met with him for a month or two.

“Speaking with him was the first time I was super open with a counselor,” she said. “I felt very comfortable.”

Rodriguez found those conversations helpful, and she followed up with additional counseling a year later with counselor Tricia Isenstein. With the staff at Counseling Services, Rodriguez found she was able to open up about things that had been really difficult to talk about before.

Her labor position in Student Life was another important piece of her journey toward emotional wholeness. Rodriguez has worked as a facilities assistant for four years and feels like she is part of a family. The staff are encouraging and have been positive role models.

“The team provides a support system that has definitely nurtured my sense of self and my independence,” she said.

Rodriguez is a team leader and works directly with six other students. It is a role she takes seriously. At first, she said it was nerve-wracking. Because of her past, she doubted her ability to make solid decisions.

“The job forced me to be smart about how I do things,” she said. “I really want to open myself up and be there for my students, offer a beacon of help and make sure I do the job with the best interest of everybody at heart.”

An integral part of being a beacon of help involves modeling her own well-being. She supervises mostly first-year students, and she knows how important it is for them to incorporate self-care.

“I strive to be more transparent about my mental health and encourage my students to be,” she said. “If necessary, I can take my own experiences to help others figure out next steps.”

Rodriguez is poised to graduate in 2021 with a psychology degree and plans to continue this mental wellness advocacy work in her career. “Doing something where I am able to help people and be a resource for them, that is really my goal,” she said.

Right now she is drawn to neurology and how brain science can illuminate the causes of depression and anxiety. No matter where she ends up in her career, there is a piece of her college experience that Rodriguez wants to take with her.

“The spirit of community that Berea gives to students and staff made a difference,” she said. “It’s the idea that we are all in this together, that I will help you if I can or help you find who can help.”

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