October 2, 2023

Growing Through Grief

UMW senior Meghan Cardwell floats into the Hurley Convergence Center for an afternoon interview. She pulls up a chair, cardboard cup glued to her hand. Fully caffeinated, she’s a fireball, from her rose-hued hair to her crimson-colored Converse.

She calls herself a stargazer, a storyteller, a Jedi. Interrupts the chat to shout her love to a tour guide.

But don’t let Cardwell’s effervescence fool you. This psychology major, who’s been on the front lines of bullying and suicide, is a kaleidoscope of emotions. And she doesn’t mind sharing them.

“It’s why I do the things I do and why I study what I study,” she said. “Hiding your diagnoses prevents you from getting help, and there should be no stigma to getting help.”

A quarter Japanese – her grandmother immigrated to the U.S. years ago – Cardwell grew up in Newport News into sci-fi and superheroes. The bullying started when a middle school teacher targeted her, dragging her classmates along for the ride.

With her mother, Cardwell made the decision to stay in the close-knit Catholic school system she’d loved. High school, they thought, would bring change. They were wrong.

“My bullies got new friends, and I got new bullies,” said Cardwell, who transferred after ninth grade to find peace.

When her parents divorced soon after, her anxiety morphed into headaches, insomnia. She sought help from a therapist and found solace in theater. “You take all your problems and leave them backstage,” she said of the acting she threw herself into in high school. “You become a different person.”

Mary Washington was another fresh start, and Cardwell jumped in. She joined the Student Transition Program, helped organize the James Farmer Multicultural Fair and worked to create the UMW Whovians club (for fans of the TV show Doctor Who). She joined BellACappella, went to work at the University Center and got noticed by teachers, including Associate Professor of Classics, Philosophy and Religion Angela Pitts.

“She decided she was going to succeed in the course one way or the other,” said Pitts, who saw Cardwell’s synesthesia – converging senses that can affect cognition – make learning Latin a challenge. “When Meghan experiences something difficult, she finds a way to not only overcome it but to try to help others do the same.”

As a junior, Cardwell joined Mary Washington’s branded-marketing campaign, appearing on bus wraps and mall ads, and in the University’s first-ever commercial. Just weeks into summer break, though, the unthinkable happened. Her father committed suicide.

Once again, Cardwell fought grief to find purpose. She interned for Mental Health America Fredericksburg, talking about teenage depression at high schools and helping organize the Above The Darkness Walk, in memory of her dad.

“I have used this life-changing tragedy to help myself move forward …,” she posted on Facebook in October after the walk raised more than $11,000 for suicide prevention.

“Ella” – that’s the name of the instrument that lives in her purse – helps her find focus, too. “You can’t be sad when there’s a ukulele playing,” she said. “It’s impossible.”

She strums it from one end of campus to the other, lifting spirits – hers and everyone else’s – along the way.

“I’m here to tell you,” she continues on Facebook, “if you think you’re alone in this world, you are absolutely wrong. There is so much beauty … and you deserve to see it every day.”