Student Blogger Study USA

Mental Health, Self Care, and HECUA: More from Tori

pink lotus blooming on a background of green leaves

Every semester, one student from each HECUA program takes on the role of student blogger, sending regular dispatches from the field. Tori Dylla will be HECUA’s student blogger for the Inequality in America program this spring semester. Tori is a senior at the University of Minnesota, majoring in Global Studies and minoring in Asian Languages and Literature. For more information about the Inequality in America program, click here. In their third post, Tori describes the value of HECUA’s classroom “ethic of care.”

What I love about HECUA’s Inequality in America program is not just the class material, the internship placement, or the incredible cognitive growth you go through, but the way in which the program director Phil Sandro makes time for students’ mental health. Unlike other programs where the coursework is quite rigorous and students–especially students experiencing mental illness–are discouraged from the opportunity on the basis that it will be too difficult and will take up every hour of your time, Inequality in America not only recognizes mental illness as an inhibiting factor on students’ ability to learn and succeed, but the program also spends class time as a group checking in on mental health.

When I asked Phil why he dedicated class time to self-care activities, he answered that he understands that a student’s ability to learn is directly impacted by their health. HECUA is trying “not to reproduce the problems that are affecting students,” specifically the intense pressure that comes from having too much coursework and not enough time to do it while maintaining good health. Phil describes his responsibility as a teacher to not only grow students’ minds, but also “care for the hearts and souls of people.” This mindset is what makes Phil such an excellent teacher.

Before starting class each day we take ten to fifteen minutes for student-led meditation. Our meditations are not always silent, in fact, past meditations involved stretching or laughing at jokes students have told. Other times students have taught their own positive visualization strategies to the class as a form of meditation. Whatever it is, this practice has kept our class’ fire for social change burning throughout the semester, a major success considering how students oftentimes feel burnt out after half a semester.

As an additional way to check-in with each other each week, Phil encourages us to talk in small groups about our PIES. I really wish we were talking pumpkin pie here folks, but what I mean is that we discuss how we individually are doing physically, intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually–although eating pie each week does sound like another excellent form of self-care. Let me tell you how I am doing this week as an example.

Physically, I am tired. Reading and other assignments, working hard at my internship, keeping my own financial boat afloat, and spending time with family and friends has got me nearly exhausted. In the upcoming weeks, I need to make sure I manage my time well so that I am able to maintain a regular sleep schedule. If I begin to fall behind, I can talk to Phil to adjust assignment deadlines.

Intellectually, my mind is completely blown after discussing the philosophical differences between conservative, liberal, and Marxist views on economics and what policies come from those views. I had no idea that conservative and liberal economic ideology has the same roots. The biggest difference between the two is that where conservatives would rather remove government programs such as welfare from our system entirely and let the free market and “perfect competition” run the economy, liberals are willing to expand government somewhat, not a lot, in order to provide a safety net to those who are struggling the most in society. This lesson explains why so many working- and middle-class Americans today feel like they are being forgotten when conservatives want to cut taxes to the super rich and liberals want to expand the budget for welfare; we wonder where our piece of the pie (pun intended) is in this. It also explains my own frustrations with conservative and liberal economic policies alike.

Emotionally, I have never felt better. Because of the student-first mindset and structure of the Inequality in America program, I have never felt this much support with my depression, cyclical anxiety, and body dysphoria. I am actually experiencing a sort of reprieve in my mental illness. Over spring break this semester I had the opportunity to have top-surgery so that my physical body now matches my androgynous gender identity. My surgery was a simple surgery, but it still required ten days of recovery, which meant that I had to miss one day of class and two days of my internship after spring break. No other program would have allowed me the same flexibility for such a procedure. However, HECUA’s staff could not have been more supportive. When I found out my surgery was approved, Phil and I were waiting to catch the train back from lobbying with Homes for All. I looked at him with tears already running down my face and fist-pumped in the air like the gay weirdo I am. His response? Fist-pumping, happy dancing, and giving me the biggest hug. I highly recommend HECUA to any person experiencing mental illness and any LGBTQIA+ person. The genuine support I received from program staff and Phil has seriously changed my life and given me an equal chance to succeed.

Finally, within the PIES exercise the last aspect of your health to discuss is how you are doing spiritually. Spiritual is not used as a synonym for religious in this case, although it can be used in this way if you want. The question of your spirit pertains to how you are doing beyond your physical and emotional being. Asking, “How is your spirit?” is like asking “How is your soul?” Right now I feel fulfilled spiritually. Studying the root causes of inequality in the United States and how housing, education, politics, systematic and interpersonal discrimination affect a person’s ability to experience social mobility and success breathes life into my soul. Through classwork and my internship work I am learning the skills to continue the fight for social justice in the U.S. I am feeling confident that I will be a valuable employee within the field of human rights come graduation this May. I’m thriving.

I cannot emphasize enough how impactful HECUA’s Inequality in America program is. Their student-first approach to lens-shattering learning is by far the best environment I have had a chance to grow from. For me, college has always exasperated my mental illness; however, because HECUA weaves purposeful self-care activities into class time, and considers the commitments that students have outside of class when assigning readings and papers I feel like I can finally breathe. Caring for the mind, body, and soul of the student is an aspect of learning that I think teachers and really all people within the sphere of education can grow from.

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