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Find Your Team: Andy Mollenauer’s Senior Column

If there’s one thing I learned during my time at Penn State, it’s that no one’s really self-made. At least I wasn’t.

We’re constantly told by our individualistic society to make our own way and that all you need to do to be successful is pull yourself up by your bootstraps and make it happen yourself. But, as my therapist has always told me, especially whenever I’m isolating, humans are social beings. At the very least, we need social interaction. As I’ve found over the last four years, we each need a support system. We need people who are on our team. 

My Penn State journey began in the summer of 2016 in the LEAP Program. I was scared out of my mind, trying to battle clinical anxiety and depression that made social interaction excruciating. It took me a week or two to acclimate to the brand new environment that, unbeknownst to me at the time, would soon become my home. Soon, I had a handful of good friends. Alex Miller, in particular, was a true friend to me. While my mental health was consistently a struggle, he was always there to lift me up and most importantly, distract me. Distraction is the best remedy for depression, even if that distraction is just temporary. One of my favorite sayings goes like this: When you’re tired (which you often are in the throws of depression), you don’t need more rest; you just need more shit to do that you’re excited about it. 

Alex had some sick wheels on campus. We took many therapeutic drives in his Mustang, ranging from Walmart runs to the time we had to drive down 322 to help his mom with her broken-down RV. His mom had driven up to campus in that RV one Friday to pick a bunch of us up and take us out to their family’s cabin in Slatington, PA, where we enjoyed a fun weekend sitting around campfires, fishing, and rafting down the Lehigh River. I was only a few weeks into my four years at Penn State, and I already felt like I had my team, led by my buddy Alex, who was seemingly everyone’s favorite. He was the kind of guy everyone gravitated toward, and for good reason. 

But Summer Session came and went, and soon into my first fall semester, I would learn one of the hardest lessons we all have to swallow at some point in life: People drift apart in life, and that’s okay. My summer friends and I seldom kept in touch, and we all seemed to go our own separate ways, swimming from the small bay of LEAP into the ocean of a full campus during the year.

I met my best friend on move-in weekend, but I didn’t realize it at the time. Anthony Colucci lived across the hall from me on the first floor of Beaver Hall, where I would live for the first three years of college. We were in the Leadership and Service Special Living Option, and we would have a class together starting Wednesday: CAS250. We bonded over little things like that he was from New Jersey. I love people from New Jersey. Most of my relatives live there, and it’s always been like home to me. We both loved sports, too, especially baseball, and we’d play catch and wiffle ball out on the quad on nice days. Pretty soon, we started doing everything together like going to the football games, eating in Redifer, and studying. Even then, I still didn’t realize the impact Anthony would have on my life in the years to come. 

Freshman year was gone in the blink of an eye, and it was time to go back to State for the first semester of sophomore year. This year was when I began to really struggle mentally, and I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to begin another year of school. I was more depressed than I’d ever been, and began skipping classes, sleeping the days away and feeling like I physically couldn’t get myself out of bed.

I felt ashamed and didn’t want anyone to know what was going on with me, but it was hard keeping that from people, especially my roommate, who saw a pill bottle on my desk and asked me what I take meds for. I just made something up. Pain meds for a back problem, I said, realizing that probably sounded silly for a 19-year-old. But it was important to me that no one knew. 

Anthony was the first person I told about my struggles, at least the first person I really truly opened up to. I got the sense that some people kind of figured something wasn’t right with me, but I told Anthony everything. I struggle with bipolar disorder, which wrought havoc on my life sophomore and junior years in particular. Aside from the occasional manic episode, life was hell. When you’re up, even too much, it’s a good feeling that you wouldn’t trade for anything. When you’re down, it’s like the world has come to an end. It was this year that I realized just how important Anthony was to me, and that we’d be friends forever. 

My favorite memory with Anthony to this day is that day trip we took at the end of the spring semester. We bought Pirates tickets on a whim, and drove to Pittsburgh in my ’93 Volvo 240 station wagon (may it rest in peace). The whole three hours there, we had deep conversations about all the complicated intricacies of life, like religion, politics, and mental illness and had a fascinating back-and-forth about all the things we believed in, disagreed on, and agreed on. It was great. You know someone’s a real friend when you can talk to them about the deepest, most complicated things rather than simple small talk. 

The game was great. Pittsburgh defeated St. Louis in come-from-behind fashion in 11 innings. To this day, that’s the greatest sports game I’ve witnessed in person, and I’ll never forget sharing that experience with my best friend. 

That year, I met another one of my closest friends in a chance encounter in the lobby of our residence hall. Geoff Gelorme saw me sitting in the ground floor lounge of Beaver Hall, and came in to introduce himself. 

“You’re the kid from my math class, right?” he asked. 

Turned out, he was really good at math and I was struggling in the class. We first bonded over studying for MATH34, which we both hated, but his support made it much more doable. Geoff helped me climb my way from a 39% in the class at the beginning of the semester to an A- by the semester’s end. We stayed friends, and the rest is history. Like Anthony, Geoff is one of the few who knows all about me in terms of my struggle with mental illness, and he’s been one of my strongest most loyal supporters. I don’t know what I’d do without him. 

The turning point of my time at Penn State came the next fall, the start of junior year. Anthony, a member of Onward State, suggested that I join the organization, as he knew I’ve always had an affinity for writing and was a Comm major. I was reluctant to join, feeling doubtful of myself and thinking that I wouldn’t like it, but he convinced me and today, I’m so grateful that he did. Like Anthony had the year before, Onward State changed my life. 

I met another of my now closest friends through Onward State. Jim Davidson whom I was introduced to by Anthony, was such a cool guy, I remember thinking. He was just such an affable soul who made you feel like you mattered, and had this way of making you feel welcome. He proved to be a very instrumental piece of my recovery journey. He would always say, and still does every time we talk today, “If you need anything buddy, you let me know.” And he really, truly meant it. Jim came in clutch on numerous occasions when I needed someone.

Late in my junior year, I began to have a number of pretty serious physical health problems, which made my mental health situation harder than I ever imagined it could be. A few times, when I was either too depressed or in too much physical pain to get out of bed, Jim would bring me food. One day, he showed up with a meat-lovers pizza, two bottles of Gatorade, and a bottle of Advil. As he always does, he said to me before he left, “If you need anything buddy, you let me know.” If you’re an incoming college student looking for advice, here’s some: Find a friend like Jim Davidson. 

My first year with Onward State, like that year in my personal life, was a tough one. My poor health made it hard to be productive, and I only wrote 19 stories all year. Despite the struggles, I knew I needed to do better if I would have the privilege of being a part of the group my senior year. Thank you, Elissa Hill, the managing editor at the time, and someone I consider a friend, for giving me a chance when, at times, I probably didn’t deserve it. Your support means the world to me, and I’ll never forget all you did to help me get through that tough time.  

Senior year was when I really began to shine and pull myself out of the constant cycle of struggles. I was more productive with the blog, brought my grades up significantly, and just felt so much better overall. It’s sad that it came to a premature end thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, but I have no regrets as I’m finishing up the last few weeks of my final semester, on the cusp of making the Dean’s List for the first time in three years. I’ve come a long way in four years, from doing better in the classroom and setting career goals to finding peace with myself and doing my best to be a better friend and member of the Penn State community and preparing for wherever my journey takes me next.

I’m beyond excited to be graduating on time with a degree in print and digital journalism from the best place in the world, one that gave a kid from a small town in Maryland a chance and turned his life around drastically for the better. My dream is to be a feature writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and I’ll give anything and everything to see it through, but no matter where I go, I know I’ll have people behind me who love and care about me and have given and sacrificed so much to lift me from hopelessness to new beginnings. Life isn’t always fair. We’re all vulnerable and need help from time to time.

So, if I had to give one piece of advice to a kid beginning his or her time at Penn State, it’s this: Surround yourself with the finest, most impactful people you can and hold them close to you and never take them for granted.

In the words of the great Jon Bon Jovi, “Stand tall when you stumble. Stand proud when you’re humbled. All the lessons you learn won’t be the ones that you’ll plan. And every step up that mountain will be more than worth counting. And when you walk through the valley, may you walk like a man.”

Find your friends. Find your niche. Find your team.

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About the Author

Andy Mollenauer

Andy is a writer for Onward State, a senior majoring in journalism, and a die-hard Wisconsin pro sports fan despite being from our nation's capital. His taste in music is absolute garbage, ranging from Bon Jovi to Slipknot to Avril Lavigne. If you want to talk sports or share memes and cute photos of French bulldogs, email him at [email protected].

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