Struggles with mental health united these two Penn State World Campus students

By Mike Dawson
May 30, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Personal struggles with mental health helped bring two Penn State World Campus students closer together, and now they’re hoping to inspire others.

Rochelle Harris’s world was turned upside down when her husband took his own life, leaving her to raise their two young children. As a teenager, Tori Zielinski was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and later found out she had a brain tumor, thwarting her plans to go to college immediately after high school.

Through a Penn State World Campus student organization, they met each other and bonded as best friends, at the same time persevering to overcome the darkest days of their mental-health struggles. Their college educations are opening doors they never thought possible.

“I remember how isolating mental health and how deep and dark depression can get,” said Zielinski, 27, who lives near Reading, Pennsylvania. “I don’t want anyone else to experience that pain. I want to help them get what they need to help themselves.”

The two women, separated by 2,600 miles, met during a video conferencing session in 2016 for Penn State World Campus students interested in starting a chapter of Active Minds, an organization dedicated to helping raise awareness of mental-health issues. They hit it off instantly.

Over the semesters, the friendship grew. They co-founded the chapter and had the chance to take one course together. Zielinski even traveled to visit Harris, who lives near San Diego. Meanwhile, they were always texting and talking.

“We just became like a little family,” said Harris, 27. “We talk every day. It’s one of those things — you just click, and it’s still the same way now. I consider her a sister.”

When they first met, they never could have imagined they would have bonded over losing family and friends to suicide. Zielinski lost a best friend, a cousin and a neighbor — all when she was a teenager.

Harris was only a few semesters into her degree program when she lost her husband, in the summer of 2017. Harris said he was working as a Marine Corps recruiter and previously had spent a year deployed in Afghanistan. He must have been dealing with issues he kept to himself, she said.

Harris was later diagnosed with depression, though she said she maintained a full-time course load, which was a stabilizing force during a very debilitating time. A confidante like Zielinski was also important.

“She helps remind me of my bigger purpose I have going,” Harris said. “She helps remind me that everything will be OK in the end.”

For Zielinski, her course work and Harris have been stabilizing forces, too. Zielinski enrolled in World Campus in 2015, six years after the brain tumor derailed her first college plans. She remembered the depression, the migraines, the mood swings and emotional breakdowns. Life has been so much more bearable with someone in her corner who understands what she’s gone through.

“She has helped me mold what I want to do with my life,” said Zielinski, who is double-majoring in biobehavioral health and psychology and has her eyes on a career in medical research. “She helped cheer me on, and she’s been there with me. I don’t think I would have been as involved if it was for her cheering me on.”

Zielinski had the chance to cheer on Harris in May, at Penn State’s spring commencement, when Harris graduated with her bachelor’s degree in psychology. Harris is taking the next year to spend with her children and then hopes to pursue a master’s degree in social work and later a doctorate.

“To find someone I can text any time, it just reminded me you can end up with something really great," Harris said. “I really do thank Penn State for that, for building a great relationship.”

For Harris, her turn to cheer on Zielinski should come in 2021.

Mental health services are available to Penn State World Campus students. Visit the Penn State World Campus website for more information.

Last Updated May 31, 2019