A student's mission to help struggling students

Published on November 09, 2018

Mental health support a critical resource to student success

When you meet Karen Velasco (Marketing ’18), her energetic, bubbly personality stands out. A well-recognized face on campus and current vice president of external with the NAIT Students’ Association, she first arrived from the Philippines in 2016.

Back then, Velasco says, she wasn’t as outgoing and, in fact, struggled being so far from home. Aside from her aunt and sister, she didn’t know anyone in Edmonton. Then, she found NAIT’s International Centre, where she received support from a peer mentor, made friends, and started to volunteer on campus.

It wasn’t long before Velasco came out of her shell. The next year, she signed up to be a campus ambassador and international peer mentor. She was among the first volunteers to join the student outreach program called OWL, or Outreach and Well-being Leader. It promotes well-being by connecting students with mental health supports such as counselling and activities like free fitness classes.

“I make a point to get to know them and make them feel comfortable and let them know there are lots of services that can help,” says Velasco.

These services also helped Velasco during one of the hardest times in her life.           

Sharing her story to help others

Partway through the fall 2017 semester, Velasco suffered a devastating blow: her father passed away after years of battling terminal cancer. She returned home for three weeks, but scheduled quizzes and assignments with her instructors so she wouldn’t be too far behind upon her return. However, she struggled to keep up.

“I didn’t know I was struggling, but I was in danger of failing one of my courses,” says Velasco. “In my grieving process, I wasn’t sleeping; I was just keeping myself busy. I lost motivation to study. It wasn’t healthy.”

A fellow peer mentor noticed something was wrong and took Karen to see a counsellor. That support helped her cope with her loss and, in May 2018, Velasco crossed the convocation stage and accepted her diploma.

Sharing her personal story is difficult, but Velasco says she wants others to know that everyone struggles.

 “Even though I’m an OWL, a peer mentor and in this position on NAITSA, it doesn’t mean that I’m okay all the time.”

Reflecting on her experience, Velasco discovered her own personal mission: to give back and help students, much like those who helped her."

In 2019, Velasco became the face of a campaign to promote mental health to students on campus. “You never know what people are going through. Some people are happy on the outside and deep down they feel like the world is against them."

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"It’s like a ripple effect. I think back to those peer mentors who helped me. I want to help students, and then those students will go on to help future students.”

She’s also thankful to the donors who support students, particularly through their donations to mental health or to the NAIT Fund.

“You are creating that ripple effect of giving, impacting students’ lives so one day they might give back to the community.”