For counseling major Rachel DiGangi, mental health is more than a calling. It's personal.
As she prepares to graduate this month and explores ways she can impact the world, Rachel is reflecting on her time at Lesley and the legacy she’s leaving behind. As co-president of the Active Minds student club, she’s been a passionate advocate for mental health awareness and was honored by the national Active Minds organization for championing equitable policies while at Lesley.
Rachel was only a sophomore when she read the tuition insurance brochure and realized that students who withdrew for physical ailments got a higher reimbursement than those who withdrew for mental health.
She felt compelled to share her concerns with senior leadership and met with Disability Services Director Ruth Bork and former Lesley President Joseph Moore to champion the cause.
“It was really important to me that we get this done as soon as possible,” she recalled.
Work had been underway to change the tuition insurance policy, and in 2016, during Rachel’s sophomore spring semester, Lesley equalized the physical ailment and mental health tuition insurance reimbursements.
The Birth of a Policy Advocate
Growing up on Long Island, Rachel did not imagine what she would accomplish at Lesley.
“I was 15 when I was diagnosed with anxiety,” she recalled, “and so many things could be different if I allowed it to control me for the rest of my life.”
In addition to her work on campus policy, she’s involved with the Community Service Office along with her co-presidency duties for Active Minds, a nonprofit that’s dedicated to changing the conversation around mental health on college campuses.
In this role, she registered the Lesley Active Minds club with the national organization and has worked alongside fellow co-president Olivia Jarvis '18 to organize a series of important advocacy and mental health awareness events, such as the powerful “Send Silence Packing” suicide-awareness installation in the fall of 2017, during which Doble Campus was dotted with over 1,000 backpacks representing college students lost to suicide each year.
“Through Active Minds, we’re spreading awareness and eventually eliminating the stigma,” explained Rachel, who joined the fledgling club her freshman year and helped build it from the ground up. “I’m really passionate about this topic.”
The national Active Minds organization lauded the Lesley chapter for their support to change Lesley’s institutional insurance policy, recognizing Rachel at the annual Active Minds conference in Washington, D.C., in November.
But the journey is never easy.
After Rachel accepted the national accolade, she was in and out of the hospital for much of the semester due to a case of bronchitis. An argument with a nurse about whether she could leave the hospital because of her heavy workload and leadership responsibilities gave Rachel pause.
“My own mental health is one of the biggest reasons why I do this,” she said, “and if I allowed that to consume me, this all wouldn’t be happening.”
Embarking on a Life of Service
Rachel traveled solo to the national conference to accept the award on behalf of the Lesley chapter, and overcame her nerves to embrace a life-changing experience.
“It was the first time I’ve ever done anything like that by myself,” she said. “I was a little nervous, but it ended up being really healing and such an amazing experience of growth for me. I really had to push myself to make connections with other people, and I did.”
Rachel had dinner with Alison Malmon, the founder and executive director of Active Minds, as well as the couple who sponsored the award and other event speakers. Through conversations with Malmon and like-minded policy advocates, she was inspired to explore graduate studies in social work instead of counseling.
“Alison understood my passion for therapy, but asked how I thought I might incorporate my advocacy work, and that hadn’t crossed my mind yet,” Rachel recalled. “She helped show me that I could do both.”
Rachel then spent her senior spring break journeying to the mountains of North Carolina to work with Habitat for Humanity for the second Lesley Alternative Spring Break trip of her college career.
Through conversations with her classmates and advisors in the group, the trip prompted another life-altering possibility: a year of service instead of continuing on to graduate school right away.
“Service, for me, is not just something you throw on a résumé or do because it’s a class requirement,” she said. “I feel like I’m my best self and I’m at my most grounded when I’m serving.”
Rachel is graduating from Lesley with her BS in Counseling, and she's been accepted to Columbia University for her master’s in social work. But she may defer to dedicate herself to a year of service.
For now, she is focused on solidifying the Active Minds chapter for the next generation of Lesley students.
“I still feel like I haven’t done enough,” she said. “I’m talking to professors about how we can do more in addition to transitioning leadership for the chapter so that the students stepping into the foundation we’ve set up can be even more successful. That’s the goal.”