KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Cass Davis dances around melodies with ease, belting out Beyonce with a cool confidence that could easily captivate an audience. They came to Western Michigan University in fall 2022 to pursue a vocal performance degree but, through a year of growth and support, have found new purpose in helping people struggling with expressing emotions find their own voice.
"The music classes that I have taken have been perfect for me. They've absolutely driven my purpose for being here and provided a sense of belonging for me here," Davis says. The classes have also helped them find a new career path and passion in music therapy.
"Therapists really helped me through some of the darkest times in my life. I was like, 'You know what, if there's anything else I was put on this earth to do, it's to help people, and I really want to help people with their mental health the way I was helped," they say. "Once I found out that Western had a music therapy program, that just put my two worlds together."
Mental health advocacy is a personal journey for Davis that has only intensified since arriving at Western. Growing up in Powder Springs, Georgia, they initially had a difficult time adjusting to campus life hundreds of miles away from their family. They made friends during Fall Welcome and started building a support system at Western, but things still weren't quite clicking.
"I was going through a really rough time transitioning into college," remembers Davis, who just completed their first year at the University. "I was going to classes, but I was really struggling."
During the Western Student Association's Mental Health Week on campus, friends encouraged Davis to check out a relaxation station at Sindecuse Health Center. That's where they first met staff from the Office of Health Promotion and Education, including Sabbi Merz, assistant director of health promotion and education, and Janay Christian, assistant director of mental well-being—a new position funded by the Empowering Futures Gift.
"It was just a super inviting environment," says Davis, who relishes in the memory of beating Christian in a game of Giant Uno and the ego boost that came with it. "But then we put away (the game) and began to color, and that's when Janay started talking to us and asking, 'What are your names? What are your majors? Are you okay?' And the really big thing for me was the fact that in that time period I wasn't, and she was the first (employee) at Western to ever really ask that question."
Still in their first semester on campus, Davis hadn't yet gotten very involved on campus or explored many of the resources available to students. They started visiting the Office of Health Promotion and Education more often and turning to Christian for support and guidance.
"She just had this dynamic about her that was so engaging and inviting, and I knew that was somebody that I could look up to the rest of my life," Davis says.
Christian encouraged them to become a mental health peer educator in the office.
"When the Office of Health Promotion and Education decided we would have mental health peer education, the hope was that it would attract students who we could learn from, students who were interested in creating an intentional community on campus," Christan says. "We were looking for students who needed somewhere to belong and were willing to offer the same to others; Cass is definitely one of those students, even if they didn't know it at the time."
"That was a big deal for me because I was always trying to find how I could help people … and being a mental health peer educator opened up that door and invited me into this whole new world of possibilities in which I was able to help people," Davis adds.
Christian also empowered Davis to set up the Common Ground, a space on the second floor of Sindecuse which is now filled with puzzles, words of affirmation, artwork, relaxing furniture and even a projector screen to watch TV and movies.
"I wanted it to be a common place for all students, no matter your background, where you come from, where you're going, any of that—this is the one place on campus where you can be truly, authentically yourself," Davis says. "This is a place where you can focus on your mental health and really make it a priority in your life."
In the Common Ground, students can connect with Davis and other peer educators in a way that may be less intimidating than scheduling a therapist appointment. Having someone the same age who can connect on a deeper level and understand your language and your struggles, Davis says, can be life-changing for students.
"I really enjoyed becoming a mental health peer educator because it allowed me to find a sense of who I am and who I want to be," Davis says.
It also gave them a renewed commitment to staying at Western when doubt crept in.
"There was a point in time where I was going through a really rough patch, and I was like, 'I just don't think I'm cut out for this.' And (Christian and I) sat down and we talked about it. We took a couple of deep breaths and I realized: Maybe this is the best thing for me right now."
"Cass is the epitome of what it means to be a WMU student finding their way. I am grateful to know a human with so much love, courage and adventure in their heart," adds Christian. "We could not have planned for a more amazing inaugural mental health peer educator."
Now dialed into their purpose and empowered to be a change agent, Davis is ready to help the next generation of Broncos. They are training this summer to be an orientation leader to incoming students in the fall.
"Health promotion and education has changed my life for the better. Janay saw something in me that I didn't really see in myself. And that alone has set the tone for how I plan to hold the rest of my life."
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