Engaging Identity: Exploring mental health and personal identity on the Smith campus

Photo Courtesy Of inhabitat.com | The Schacht Health and Wellness Center launched the Engaging Indentity Conference.

 

Sophie Wilson ‘20
Contributing Writer

Since February, the Smith College Wellness Center has been hosting a conference called Engaging Identity. The conference will run through April, and is made up of a combination of workshops, sit-down dinners, faculty presentations and a video series. Its goal is to provide a space for community bonding, and for students to become more comfortable with their many identities and struggles. The conference was conceptualized by Kristina Mereigh, Director of Wellness Programming and is being held with the help of a faculty/staff board, a student board and health reps from houses across campus. I spoke with Mereigh to get a better sense of the event; here is what she had to say:

What inspired you to have this conference at Smith?

The students. I’m new to the campus and am an anthropologist at heart. I met with 100 students informally, researching what wellness meant to them. What I learned is that people are lonely, they do not feel like they are a part of community or that they can be their most “authentic” selves, and do not have the language or tools to express who they are verbally outside of race, gender and sexual orientation. I wanted to provide the space for exploration to happen safely.

I also noticed the amount of over-programming that happens at Smith. I thought that a natural way to unite the campus was by launching a campaign around identity. We define identity broadly, from the identities that are receiving more attention in the media such as sexual orientation, race and gender, to other identities such as birth order and career choice.

Why do you think this is important?

I think it’s important to celebrate diversity on all levels and help students become the most empowered versions of themselves while they are in college. It’s also important to build up community and break down the walls that exist on our campus that foster derision, especially in a time when the world is trying to further marginalize and stigmatize people. I think it is all of our jobs, on all levels, to build stronger, safer communities.

Which events have been your favorites so far, and why? 

The Self Love launch event was one of my favorite events because it provided a non-academic space to celebrate people as individuals through visual and performing arts. There were tons of games and food. I felt that people could come into the space and just have fun, listen to music and watch performances. They could leave their pretenses at the door, even for just a few moments. Some of the performers were Janis Luke (Original Dance), Precious Musa (spoken word), Celebrations and Groove.

Another favorite thus far was our Keynote Speaker: Jordan Axani. The keynote: What’s Your Big Lie was on Feb. 16. Jordan’s organization designed an online anonymous platform where people can message in the “big lie” that they tell the world, or the “mask” that they wear during the day. Over 50 people submitted anonymously about struggles that they face everyday, stories about sexual assault, mental illness, everyday mental health struggles: feelings of isolation, etc. It was so real and so honest. Reading those messages truly humbled me and reminded me how important it is to have a strong wellness program on this campus and even more important in this political climate to be building a healthy community where people feel loved, safe and accepted.

Which events are you most looking forward to, and why?

I am leading a short series within the Engaging Identity Series called Get Woke.  The first one was on Valentine’s Day. It was a safe and open space to explore aspects of privilege in relation to our individual identities in tactile and verbal ways that several of the attendees said they’d never had a chance to do before.  I am really excited about Get Woke (part two), which is scheduled for Mar. 9 in CC 103/104. This workshop will focus on Smith culture and the “Smithie” identity. We will explore terms like “women of the world,” “women’s leaders,” etc, and discuss how these Smith defined labels affect our health. We will also discuss wellness plans for self-care and ways to be empowered on campus despite labels and expectations.

Is there anything else you want people to know?

The second component of the conference is the community dinners. They are an opportunity for students, faculty and staff to come together and share “coming of identity” stories. The goal of the dinners is to bring the campus together to have conversations about identity and self-development outside of the classroom, fostering community healing and growth. Sharing real life moments of growth and discovery will encourage an atmosphere of transparency while simultaneously celebrating individuality and uniqueness.

The next dinner is Mar. 24 in CC 204 from 5:30-7:30pm. It’s a free three-course meal and will be a lot of fun.

To find out more about the Engaging Identity series, check them out on Facebook. To contact them with questions or to RSVP for community dinners, email engagingidentity@gmail.com. There are two raffles associated with the conference, as well as a prize for house attendance.

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