Steven was an incredible role model and mentor. I remember meeting him during my freshman year when he was a graduating senior. As the president of the Filipino American Student Association on campus, he encouraged others to become more involved with the student-led organization, myself included. I recall attending an event that Steven helped to spearhead, where Gen. Tony Taguba, retired U.S. Army Major General and prominent Filipino American leader, came to speak on campus about his career and the importance of working toward what you believe in. Steven had an eye for recognizing leadership potential and helping to cultivate the skills of those leaders. He was even known for breaking out in spontaneous poetry rap battles – in the most articulate sense possible. Once Steven graduated from undergrad, he and I continued to share poetry and writing; I admired his emphasis on creativity and clarity, as he helped me see writing through a new and refreshing perspective. Steven was a young man of many talents.
A few weeks shy of graduating from law school, Steven Enriquez passed away by suicide. My close friends and I didn’t see it coming. He absconded from our lives, but not before leaving a lasting impression on everyone he crossed paths with. Since the fateful day of his death almost four years ago, I’ve defined myself as a mental wellness warrior. However, it has taken a lot of perseverance and support from others to become who I am today.
In 2013, I found myself unemployed. I felt a deep sense of failure. Had my college degree gone to waste? For eight months, I volunteered with non-profit organizations and interviewed mental health professionals. I tried mapping out what my dream job would look like with mentors and close friends. I even began writing my own blog on mental health and wellness. I applied for jobs with countless mental health organizations and agencies but to no avail.
In 2014, I was fortunate enough to be selected for the Coro Fellowship Program in Public Affairs, a leadership development program, at Coro Pittsburgh. My cohort, which consisted of eleven other passionate and motivated young leaders, were from different backgrounds and experiences. During seminar workshops and group projects, they challenged me to become the best version of myself. One of the key takeaways I learned from the program and my cohort was the importance of being vulnerable and being able to ask for help. It is more than a coincidence to me, as asking for help is at the very basis for seeking mental health treatment or investing in self-care.
As a Coro Fellow, my final project placement was with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Southwestern Pennsylvania, where I provided consultation on their new website and social media strategy. The staff at this NAMI affiliate in Pittsburgh encouraged me to explore mental health education, support, and advocacy from a different perspective. I continued to learn more about the intricacies of mental illness, as well as our nation’s mental health system. While in Pittsburgh, I got trained in mental health first aid and became more proactive in recognizing mental health warning signs in youth and adults. The whole time, I fought off the feeling of self-doubt, since mental health does not seem prioritized by most leaders and policymakers. A constant question I would ask myself was: What if I wasn’t tough enough for a job in the industry, especially if the root of my motivation comes from something as personal and emotional as suicide prevention?
What I should have been asking myself was: What if I was tough enough?
Prior to the conclusion of the fellowship, my cohort and I traveled to Washington, DC to interview influential individuals and learn about national policy. During our time in DC, a few fellows and I interviewed Daphne Kwok about the economic security of Asian Americans and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities across the country. I was looking forward to interviewing Daphne, VP of Multicultural Leadership, AAPI Audience Strategy at AARP and member of President Obama’s Advisory Commission on AAPIs. Before leaving the interview with Daphne, I mentioned that I was interested in working in the metropolitan DC area, and asked for her help in identifying opportunities to move there.
After graduating from the Coro Fellowship, I went on to intern with Daphne at AARP, all the while sharing my passion for raising mental health awareness among everyone I encountered. It was an incredibly invaluable experience; I even had the opportunity to work alongside Gen. Tony Taguba, who is now an ambassador for AARP and their work on caregiving! Working on multicultural work at AARP reminded me of just how important it is to embrace my identity and make it a priority, just as Steven did. As an aspiring mental health influencer and leader, I know that I bring a diverse perspective and have the agency to advocate on behalf of communities of color.
This month, I will begin the next chapter in my career as the Manager of Social Media and Digital Assets at NAMI’s national office. Though my path has been unconventional, I am aware that every experience leading up until now has given me the confidence and drive to fight on behalf of others. I’m looking forward to continuing to raise mental health awareness and advocating for systemic change at the national level. I implore anyone who is suffering from mental health issues or suicidal thoughts to go and see a psychologist to help them with what they are going through, it can be tough and a huge step to take but leaning on the people who support you will get you through these times.
In memory of Steven, and as April is National Poetry Month, I’ll leave you with a poem that I wrote back in 2011:
Some of the greatest things in this life
Are something you cannot hold
Intangible, not delicate
Not something that can be sold
And while life takes us through tumbles
And on roads we do not expect
We must take pride in all we have
And earn our self-respect
For life? It will shake us,
Drag us in misery without consent;
But I’m told there is a purpose
And Purpose’s time is well-spent
So we must willingly abide
And welcome challenges with eager spirit
For if we choose to endure life
We cannot afford to fear it