In the current climate, the significance of mental health is becoming more prominent in everyday discourse. Isabelle Nicholas, administrative specialist of Student Life at Rowan College of South Jersey's (RCSJ) Cumberland campus, has been candid about her own experiences with mental health and is using high profile platforms to spread awareness about this relevant subject.
“I have major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder," she revealed. “When I was younger, I was able to talk to my parents [about mental health], but there was a significant period of time when I suffered in silence. I started going to therapy at 20 years old. That was a big help for me."
Nicholas, 23, is the host of a podcast she created called Shout Our Struggle, which focuses on the ways community members can better prepare themselves to respond to people suffering through mental health challenges. “I bring [on] guests who have experienced different mental health situations and people of different backgrounds, so it can be a well-informed tool to help educate our communities," she explained.
By sharing her story, Nicholas, an alumna of James Madison University who earned bachelor's degrees in Musical Theater and Spanish, is intent on rising above the stigma of mental illness and transforming it into a tool for empowerment.
“Using my story for progress rather than letting it control me has been huge for helping me deal with my mental health challenges," she declared. "But it's not always easy and I still struggle."
Remarkably, one major platform Nicholas is utilizing to spread awareness is the Miss America Organization (MAO). In July, she was named First Runner-Up to Miss New Jersey 2022. Nicholas, who entered the event as the reigning Miss Shore Resort, won the Talent Award singing the opera song “Deh Vieni, Non Tardar" from Le Nozze di Figaro.
“It was, honestly, a very surreal experience – especially because I was surrounded by so many talented women," she said. “I was ecstatic, it was absolutely magical."
As a child, entering a Miss New Jersey competition was not on Nicholas' to-do list. However, as an adult, she discovered participating in these types of competitions could be beneficial. “Scholarship is the main reason why I wanted to participate," she disclosed. “In addition, it's a really good way to increase your network to gain sisterhood and to also really develop yourself as a professional."
According to Nicholas, the MAO has recently made some changes that prompted her to compete. “They got rid of the swimsuit. They focused more on the professional development side," she explained. “Because of these changes, I felt like that was a place that would welcome me and something that wouldn't necessarily be upsetting to different triggers in my life, like body image."
“I think that's something a lot of women can relate to," she continued. “I'm susceptible to body image issues, and it's something that a lot of women suffer from in society."
Nicholas was able to share her Shout Our Struggle social impact initiative to a wide-ranging audience at the competition. “It focused on mental health response, but more importantly, how everyone can have a plan to respond to a mental health challenge, whether that be their own or someone else's," she said.
“We're better equipped as a society when everyone – not just the people who struggle with mental health – is able to respond in those situations. Everything I do to get that information out is informed by survivor experience."
The pressures that are inherent in the competition humbled Nicholas and gave her an opportunity to learn more about herself. “Number one, I realized I need to give myself more grace and that maybe I don't give myself enough credit for the work that I do," she acknowledged. Also, “I put a lot of pressure on myself, which wasn't the most productive thing to do.
“I needed to take a breather and center myself. I learned I have to find new ways to cope with stress and anxiety that are more productive in those high-pressure situations, especially if I'm going to be put into them more frequently. I think that the pressure I put on myself didn't necessarily allow me to fully be present in the moment, at all times."
Nicholas will have an opportunity to apply that knowledge because in August, she won the Miss Atlantic Shores 2023 Competition and will again vie for the Miss New Jersey crown, next year.
Nicholas, who loves the Australian children's music group The Wiggles, is relishing her role as an administrative specialist of Student Life at RCSJ Cumberland. She helps organize campus happenings like the Fall Welcome events, Spring Fling, commencement ceremony and more.
She also noted upcoming events like the Fall Fest, Thanksgiving Adopt-a-Family, and the Celebration of Lights, “which provides families the opportunity to give their kids gifts on Christmas," are scheduled to take place this semester.
Nicholas, who would like to become a counseling psychologist, is grateful for the positive influence she can have on RCSJ students. “My favorite thing," she said, “is the ability I have to impact students outside of the classroom to [help] give them a well-rounded education experience.
“Being able to use on-campus events as teaching tools to make sure our students are best prepared going into the workforce and going out into whatever life changing things they want to do is probably my favorite part of working in this position."
Nicholas, who began working at the College in February of this year, has been cultivating strong relationships with students, faculty, and staff, and has a proclivity to bring people together.
“My philosophy for life is growth … I always want to be growing, evolving, and changing," she said. “That's why I think human connection is important; because we grow better when we work together. I see myself being a part of that movement of healing within our societies. That's my dream."
To learn more about Campus Life at RCSJ Cumberland, visit RCSJ.edu/CampusLife/Cumberland.