May 23, 2013Vol. 43, Issue 3

Spreading the Word

The Send Silence Packing exhibit on the lawn near the Rose Garden in 2012 featured hundreds of backpacks representing college students' lives lost to suicide.

The Send Silence Packing exhibit on the lawn near the Rose Garden in 2012 featured hundreds of backpacks representing college students' lives lost to suicide.

Ariel Ellis

Ariel EllisIf there’s one thing Ariel Ellis wants those who feel depressed to know, it’s that they’re not alone. In fact, the graduating psychology major has dedicated most of her four years at Chico State to spreading that message and other facts about mental health.

After losing a close friend in high school to suicide, with no previous inkling of his emotional suffering, Ellis realized one of the biggest stigmas surrounding suicide and depression: you don’t talk about it. As a result, she threw out her plans to attend community college and applied instead to CSU, Chico, intent on acquiring a degree that would enable her to make a difference.

And make a difference she has. As president of the campus’s Active Minds club, which works to increase awareness around mental health issues, Ellis has helped coordinate and plan the area’s first Out of the Darkness Walk, a high-profile event that raised $12,000 its first year for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and $17,000 the next. 

She also helped secure a special traveling exhibit called Send Silence Packing, featuring hundreds of backpacks strewn around the lawn of the campus Rose Garden representing the lives of college students lost to suicide. Many of the backpacks included stories and personal items of actual students, making a distant and difficult topic real to observers.

While a gifted organizer, Ellis hasn’t hidden behind high-profile public events; she’s embodied the idea that effective prevention often comes in the form of a listening friend. To that end, she has participated in peer-to-peer counseling workshops through Active Minds' DORA (Depression Outreach Alliance), served as a resident advisor for two years, and completed a counseling internship at Marsh Junior High. She begins the University’s master’s program in psychology in the fall and plans to be a school psychologist, working with students to succeed academically by addressing their mental health issues, among other things.

Ellis credits the faculty in the Counseling and Wellness Center for empowering her to make the changes she seeks. “I’ve had so many random ideas of things I’ve wanted to do here, and no matter what, it’s been supported,” she said.

For those seeking advice on how to help a friend in need, she has this: ”Listening is huge. You don’t need to know what to say, just the fact that you’re there listening is what counts.”

Dee Thao

Dee Thao in Thailand in 2012.

Dee Thao in Thailand in 2012.

Graduating communication design major Dee Thao is promoting social change through a highly social medium: film.

Thao, recipient of the College of Communication and Education's 2013 Outstanding Student Leader Award, recently premiered a 24-minute film she created that documents her family’s journey as refugees from Thailand when she was 5.

Filmed on a trip to Thailand with professor Tony Waters in summer 2012, "Searching for Answers: Retracing a Hmong Heritage in Thailand and Laos,” explores the aftershocks of the Vietnam War, how her family and others came to be refugees, their immigration to the U.S., and the factors in other families’ decision to stay.

While a deeply personal exploration of her roots, Thao’s film is also a historical documentary looking at the broader human experience and the implications of war and oppression. It’s not the first film she’s made tackling large-scale social issues. Inspired by a Chico State anthropology class in 2011, she and another student produced a documentary exposing the illegal trade of human trafficking and its prevalence in the United States and the immediate region. Shown around the country, "Sold" raised awareness on a national level. Thao is currently working on a second version to enter in film festivals to increase awareness.

With Thao's passion for international issues, it’s not surprising that her leadership has extended beyond filmmaking. In addition to studying in Japan, Thao has been involved with the CSU, Chico African Diaspora Organization, the Cross-Cultural Leadership Center, and the American Language and Culture Institute. She has also served as president of the University’s Digital Filmmaker’s Guild, urging the group to begin producing professional videos for campus groups and recruiting students from across majors.

With graduation around the corner, Thao said she’ll pursue a career creating micro-documentaries that expose human injustices and promote social change. For the time being, the first-generation college graduate has secured a temporary job in the CSU, Chico Admissions office creating recruitment videos.

“I want to empower people, especially women and Hmongs, with the realness of film,” she said. “I just want to tell people’s stories.”

"Searching for Answers: Retracing a Hmong Heritage in Thailand and Laos"

– Sarah Langford, Public Affairs and Publications

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