A ‘stronger’ student



May 26, 2017

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a worrier. As a perfectionist, everything felt dire. There’s a running joke: “I’m Jewish, but I’ve learned it’s Anxiety.”

I arrived at the University of Florida in 2011, unsure about everything. I could not have known then that my anxiety would inspire me to found a 501(c)(3) nonprofit dedicated to helping other students cope.

I was involved at UF Hillel from the moment I stepped foot on campus, looking for like-minded people to help me feel comfortable. A new friend encouraged me to attend a support group at the Disability Resource Center after watching me stress throughout midterms. I was hesitant, but she promised that I’d meet other worriers. And I did. The experience was liberating — for the first time, I could be open and, as a result, felt less alone. There were other students like me. I wanted everyone to have that experience. From then on, the DRC was typically part of the solution I offered to any friend in distress. My peers were surprised to hear that suggestion, because they were unaware of  it. Even on the rare occasion they knew of the DRC, they were reluctant to use it.

Later in 2012, there was a campus suicide. Now I knew I needed to do something. It was unacceptable to me that students were uninformed about how to get help when they felt anxious, depressed, stressed or not quite like themselves. I presented a business plan to the dean of students that outlined a campus-wide campaign called Stronger Than Stigma to raise awareness about campus resources. That idea was rejected. I would have to find another way.

Meanwhile, I registered for UF Hillel’s Birthright Israel summer 2013 trip. In Israel, I made the friends who became my business partners. Birthright created the perfect space for us to connect on a deeper, more spiritual level. As we stood in the airport hugging at the end of the trip, I told them I had “this idea …” and they said, “Yes.” Before classes started again, Stronger Than Stigma, Inc. (STS) was incorporated as a Florida nonprofit. We launched our mission — to empower, inspire and support college students and young professionals struggling with mental health issues.

We created an online presence. One connection led to the next, and pretty soon, we had global followers and people asking how to get involved. We were ready to launch a real-life support network at UF, and we turned to Hillel. It felt natural reaching out for support. In 2014, Hillel provided us with free meeting space.

Student involvement has grown to the point that despite our newness, student government approached us in the fall to create the first mental health awareness week in UF history. The UF chapter is thriving under its student board. STS has received inquiries from other Florida schools to establish chapters on their campuses. And our social media sites continue to attract followers from around the globe. A week after graduation in 2015, the IRS letter arrived approving our status, and I committed to work as the executive director right out of school.

Hillel opened many doors for me throughout my college career. It afforded me challenging opportunities to strengthen my entrepreneurial skills. It introduced me to friends who became my partners in this venture. Recently, I was invited to share STS’s story at the 2015 Hillel International Global Assembly. I led a session about the important role Hillel professionals can play in empowering college students to reach their goals, using STS as a case study. I am proud that my professional development is  connected to my Hillel involvement. Even after graduation, Hillel continues to provide me with opportunities to grow.

Gabrielle Magid is a 2015 graduate of the University of Florida and executive director of Stronger Than Stigma.