Kayla Wikaryasz’s Citizen’s Project

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This week’s article is from Kayla Wikaryasz. She is a second year transfer student graduating in the fall of 2023 with a degree in Interdisciplinary Humanities. Her degree cognates are in Professional and Public Writing, Graphic Design, and Creative Writing. She is currently interning at Michigan State’s Excel Network, and in her free time I like to draw and read.

“Citizen Scholars is allowing me to write a grant, and seek funding to help provide sensory resources to a school near my hometown. The seeds of my project were planted nearly a decade ago, though it did not have the chance to bear fruit until I arrived at MSU. The genesis of my project began with a desire to increase awareness of mental health, to support mental health professionals, and to contribute to a space in which people seeking help would not be limited in the care they receive. My project began as several iterations of what it is now, and went through many transformations that began as fundraising, community events, et cetera. Through discussions with Citizen Scholars’ director, Karin Zitzewitz, I landed on leveraging my writing skills, acquired through my Interdisciplinary Humanities major. My major’s cognates, heavily steeped in Professional and Public Writing, helped prepare me to tackle this project head on. 

Growing up in a rural community with limited resources, and being a part of a family that survived just above the poverty line, seeking help for mental health concerns was not only stigmatized, but also scarce. I was fourteen when I began my own struggle with mental health, and I often felt like there were few options available to me to seek help. Perhaps there were more options available to me somewhere, but with the limited capacity of being a teenager, I was at the mercy of resources that were facilitated to me through the adults in my life. In retrospect, my family and I did the best we could within our financial capabilities and within the parameters of what culture dictated. To put this into perspective, it was 2012 when I was fourteen years old, and from my memory, telehealth was not a thing then. Or at least, it was never offered to me as an option.

Since I am one person, I understand I can not unwind a web of institutional disparity by myself; however, I firmly believe in a reality in which small contributions at the “ground level” can have ripple effects on society. I am not trained in social work, nor do I think that is where my skill set lies. What I do know, though, is how powerful rhetoric can be to make change—that is where my power comes from. I will not be closing substantial socio-economic gaps with my project, rather the goal is to provide school therapists with an abundance of resources that they can use with their students.

Narrowing my project’s focus to mental health in school settings allows me to make a direct impact. Students and school therapists will directly benefit from extra resources, which include sensory integration tools (fidget toys, stress balls, et cetera). With my own anxiety and attention deficits, I’ve found how helpful these tools can be in my own life. Navigating long lectures that keep me sedentary, and periods of intense focus on material that my brain has a hard time processing, incorporating fidget toys into my academic life has allowed me a bit of reprieve. It doesn’t cure my anxiety (that much I understand about my brain) but it does help relieve a bit of the surface pressure that is on me during my working hours. Being a student is hard enough, but being a student with altered brain chemistry can make things seem impossible. I don’t think fidget toys will cure students of anxiety (the students to which my project will benefit) but I think it might make them feel just a little bit better.

With the Citizen Scholars funding, I was also able to apply for a study abroad program this summer. I will be traveling to Daugavpils, Latvia—a town steeped in a rich history, and echoes plights of Soviet oppression—to participate in a Russian intensive program. This program will help me complete a minor in Russian. Despite the geo-political factors that have erupted in the past year and a half, I am excited to immerse myself in a culture to which my ancestors are closely linked to. Progressing in the language is important for me, because it will not only link me closer to my ancestors that fled eastern-Europe in the 1900s, but it will also allow me to have experiences that I can carry over to my career. Whether I use my Russian language skills in a career or not, I firmly believe that being educated in another culture is a fundamental part of being human. 

Regardless of what happens after my time at MSU, I am grateful for the opportunity to make a difference in some fashion, while I’m here. Citizen Scholars has offered me opportunities that I would never have experienced if I were never to have been a part of their program. It has truly enhanced my MSU education, and I know that I am taking invaluable skills with me out into the world because of them.”