Student Turns Challenges into Campus Discussion on Eating Disorders

Vanessa Voller' 16 hiking the Na’Pali coast in Kaua’i

Vanessa Voller’ 16 hiking the Na’Pali coast in Kaua’i

Montana Bass ’18

When I walk in to Sacred Grounds, a student-run tea house inside Shove Memorial Chapel, Vanessa Voller ’16 immediately shows me to an assortment of teas, puts on water, and makes sure I’m comfortable. In less than a minute, she has already impressed me with her obvious kindness and the comforting sense of calm she carries with her.

She is a sociology major and an avid hiker from St. Paul, Minnesota. Next block, she will facilitate an inaugural three-day event series during National Eating Disorder Awareness Week to raise awareness about disordered eating and eating disorders on college campuses. Events will include keynote lectures and book signings by Jenni Schaefer and Anita Johnston, two prominent scholars and activists in the field; a documentary screening and discussion about eating disorders in diverse communities; trainings and workshops for Athletics Department and residential life staff; and free assessments and referrals by specialists from the Eating Disorder Center of Colorado Springs.

“I was diagnosed with an eating disorder in 2005, when I was just 11 years old,” says Voller. “I was physically and mentally ill for nearly a decade, losing my early and late adolescence to my mental illness.” We are sitting on colorful, plush cushions when I ask what motivated her to dedicate so much time and effort to this cause. She began her answer very simply.

“I was fortunate enough to have access to help at the Emily Program in St. Paul, one of the best centers for eating disorders in the country. There, I attended intensive out-patient therapy, group therapy, and family therapy sessions.”

Though at a more stable weight, Voller admits that her mental health continued to suffer throughout her first three years at CC. Now during her last semester, she is determined to spread awareness about this deadly mental illness. “The most important thing for me for people to know is that healing and recovery is possible. I think if someone had said that to me when I was 11 or even a first-year at CC it wouldn’t have taken a decade to ultimately be freed from my own mental illness,” she pauses, waiting for me to look up, “make sure you get that down,” she adds taking a long sip of her chamomile tea.

The three-day NEDA week event series, says Voller, is the culmination of her own recovery process. It is also her senior capstone project for the Community Engaged Leadership Certificate program, supervised by David Harker, director of the Collaborative for Community Engagement and an extension of her recent Venture Grant supervised by Associate Professor of Sociology Kathy Giuffre. Voller received a Venture Grant to spend her winter break hiking the Na’Pali coast in Kaua’i and interviewing Hawaiian cultural experts and medical staff at Hawaii’s only residential eating disorder clinic, Ai’Pono.

The Kalalau Trail she hiked is one of the “Top Ten Most Dangerous in the U.S.” according to National Geographic. Despite various setbacks, including a flash flood, Voller ultimately completed the 22-mile trek, during which she said she was reminded of her own recovery journey. “At mile two on the hike, at the Hanakap’ai Stream, I faced incredibly dangerous, chest deep waters. A local park ranger told me that I had to turn around and wait out the flash flood because crossing could be deadly. I immediately thought of my childhood therapist, holding my 11-year-old hand saying, ‘Vanessa, if you continue with this behavior you could die.’”

“I began the hike alone,” she says, “thinking that I didn’t need anyone or any help. But honestly, it was quite bold to think I didn’t need anyone.” She sets her mug down, “After the flash floods I befriended three other hikers and we traversed the rest of the coastline together.” She adds, “You know, almost everyone I met during my travels was healing from something: a failed marriage, an addiction, the loss of a loved one.”

After her hike, Voller traveled to the Ai’Pono clinic in Maui. “I read ‘Eating by the Light of the Moon’ by Anita Johnston when I was in treatment and it profoundly impacted me,” she says. Voller speaks of Johnston with intense admiration. “Anita is a remarkable woman; a true healer. An inspiration. She will do wonders for our community and I am honored that she is taking time to visit us.”

This block, Voller is in an independent study with Giuffre focused on writing an auto-ethnographic memoir chronicling her recovery journey through the lens of her backpacking trip. “I’m not sure what will happen with the manuscript when the block is over,” she says, “but for right now, I’m just focused on exploring my own creative writing process and crafting a new narrative of hope and of healing.”

More information on NEDA week, which will be Tuesday, Feb. 23, to Thursday, Feb. 25, is coming soon.

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