A photo of a man looking over his shoulder.

‘Be gracious with yourself’

When depression brought him to his knees, several “shining lights” helped Kwame Walker get back on his feet. Now, he wants to help others do the same.

Kwame Walker, a social work major, said his experience with depression has made him more aware of “how to pick yourself up gracefully when you fall down.” (Tom Kojcsich, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)
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About How I Turned It Around: In this series, students who’ve struggled academically and otherwise share insights, resources and stories of how they got back on track.

Kwame Walker hit the ground running as a Virginia Commonwealth University freshman in fall 2020. A biology major at the time, Walker already was familiar with the university through its Diversity P.A.T.H.S. program, which supports middle and high school students to pursue health care careers.

The entire incoming Class of 2024 had it rough that year in the pandemic’s early stages, but Walker persevered, even while taking all of his classes virtually. Plus, his excitement was renewed after attending the semester’s first meeting of the Association of Black Social Workers at VCU.

“I felt like family there,” said Walker, who found a mentor in then-fellow student Oscar Kemp, who graduated in May 2023 and is now a Fulbright scholar studying in Uganda. “I saw a lot of myself within him. It was a wrap from there. I switched to a social work major because I felt that would align to what I wanted to do.”

Feeling like he had his future mapped out and surrounded by like-minded students, Walker soared as an underclassman. By the start of his junior year in fall 2022, he felt comfortable taking a maxed-out load of seven classes.

“I felt like I could do it all – a student leader, an undergraduate researcher, a brother, a friend, all of these things,” Walker said. But “it was too much for me to bear. I learned that you cannot take much more than what you can handle. If you saw my list of things to do, it was so much. I had to work overtime to finish work that I should have [had] done. And … I went through a breakdown.”

On Nov. 20, the Sunday before Thanksgiving, he called a suicide hotline.

“It was around 1 o’clock in the morning, when you feel the most lonely. My mind was racing, my heart was beating really fast,” Walker said. “It was hard and it was daunting and it was a very dark time.”

He also sought help through VCU’s TimelyCare hotline, a free 24/7 virtual health and well-being platform.

“The conversation helped me in the moment, but it was difficult vocalizing that I had suicidal ideation,” Walker recalled. “The respondent on the phone was patient with me but encouraged me to act swiftly and urgently to ‘make a plan of action, before you will end up in a box.’ This was my first-ever time entering a personal crisis, which felt like something so intertwined in my grief. I could not escape the immense feeling of dread.”

After the phone call, Walker fell asleep, wondering if any of his neighbors heard him. The next day, his mom and sisters picked him up and took him home to Newport News. 

Spending Thanksgiving with his family almost made Walker feel even worse. He felt like he could see the apprehension on his family members’ faces. But returning to campus wasn’t better.

“That’s when I truly felt even more isolated because I felt like that distressed Black man walking on the street. No one knows how to help him,” he said. “It was hard.”

Kemp, who had already had such an impact on Walker by motivating him to study social work, recognized what his friend was going through. He encouraged Walker to speak with Stephanie Odera, Ed.D., director of the B.S.W. program and an associate professor in the VCU School of Social Work.

Odera helped Walker file for a leave of absence, as well as incompletes for five of his seven classes, so he could continue once his health improved. (Walker ended up dropping the other two classes, which he is retaking now under the historical repeat option, which will exclude his previous F’s from his cumulative GPA.)

A photo of a four people standing behind a table.
ABSW: Members of the Association of Black Social Workers at VCU in August, 2022, from left, Jill Butler, Oscar Kemp, Kwame Walker and Kwasi Deitutu. (Courtesy photo)

“My mental health was in shambles,” Walker said. “It was hard, but I’m so grateful and thankful for Dr. Stephanie Odera. She has been a light in my life. She saw me in that unfavorable light of depression, [and] we had an emotional moment of our truth. … I would not be the man that I am if it wasn’t for her.”

Walker worked with a counselor over winter break and returned in the spring semester this year, ready to pick up where he had left off. Therapy had worked temporarily, he said, but once it ended, shame set in. 

“The cycle of overwhelming thoughts and anxiety had just been in my mind,” he said. “It was hard to let go of that perfect-student mentality. … All of my life, I was an academic student. My self-worth was based on academics. So especially being a Black man and doing academia and higher education, there’s a higher pressure on you.”

One week after classes started, he left VCU without a word to anyone. The following weekend, he officially dropped out.

“It was hard for me,” Walker said. “It was a lot of ‘what ifs.’ What if I could have done this better? What if I could have stopped that repetitive cycle of why did I do this to myself?”

After stumbling through another “season of depression,” Walker had an epiphany in July as he celebrated his 21st birthday. He realized his family had never deserted him. There was no disappointment from them, only support.

“I received in my heart that they’ve been there for me, and they never turned me away because I was depressed,” he said. “It was just a feeling of letting go of what happened before, and growing and blossoming.”

He also recognized that there were many more “shining lights” in his life such as Kemp, Odera, School of Social Work peer Austin Ezzard and Barrett Miller II, a VCU alum and filmmaker who inspired Walker to create a YouTube video as a medium to heal from past wounds. There also were Jair Lecky and Beck Oh from the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs, who respectively head the Men of Color (which includes Black Voices and Book Club for Men of Color) and LGBTQIA+ initiatives. The latter’s P.R.I.S.M programming has helped Walker gain a sense of community at VCU, he said.

Returning to school for this fall’s semester was one of the hardest things Walker has ever done. But he found strength from his maternal grandmother, who instilled in him the spirituality that centers him.

“She has encouraged me — and my mom as well — to be the man that I am right now. Specifically, my grandmother has encouraged me to come back to school and do the best that I can, and be gracious with yourself. Pick yourself back up gracefully when things happen or things don’t go your way.”

Walker plans to incorporate the lessons from his experience into his social work practice and to be a mental health advocate on campus, particularly for freshmen who, as he did, have a special light as their college years begin.

“I want to get to a place of healing,” he said. “And I want to help others get there, too. [This experience] has changed me because it has made me more aware of how grief works, how to pick yourself up gracefully when you fall down, and to let it go when you know you’ve been hurt by a system that may not love you back.”

And Walker is grateful for the experience, which he considers a year of transformation. He cites his love of sunflowers – and how they “represent the resilience and strength that I see in myself and that seed that’s planed inside by heart.”

“No amount of shame, no amount of loneliness can overcome me anymore,” he said, “because I’ve grown, and I can become that beautiful sunflower.”

A photo of five people holding sunflowers.
Kwame Walker, center, with a few of his “guiding lights,” from left, Beck Oh, program manager for LGBTQIA+ Initiatives at the VCU Office of Multicultural Student Affairs; Jair Lecky, program manager for Men of Color Initiatives at OMSA; Stephanie Odera, Ed.D., program director, Black Social Workers; Austin Ezzard, peer academic coach, Academic Support. (Tom Kojcsich, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)