Texas Tech University

Beyond Okay: Larissa Castaneda Vargas

Lucy Greenberg

November 4, 2022

This Red Raider is made of tougher stuff.

Larissa Castaneda Vargas dreamed of attending college in the U.S. Originally from Brazil, she wanted the American university experience, so when she found out she had been accepted to Texas Tech University, she was ecstatic. 

Then COVID-19 engulfed the world. 

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Due to travel restrictions, Castaneda Vargas had to complete her first year of college online from her home in Florianópolis. 

“The positive thing that came from that time was how I learned to study on my own and manage my time,” Castaneda Vargas said. “But on the downside, I didn't really connect with other students.” 

Castaneda Vargas says some other first-year students who were learning from home started text threads or online groups, but the interactions weren't realistic substitutes for making friends in person. 

In addition to the stress of quarantine, Castaneda Vargas also was learning solely in English for the first time. Another variable that might have been easier to navigate immersed on campus. 

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By the fall of 2021, travel restrictions lifted and allowed Castaneda Vargas to move to Texas. 

“My parents flew up with me and helped me move,” she said. “As soon as I landed, I got vaccinated for COVID-19 and then we made our way to Lubbock to find where I'd be living.” 

It was a day she remembers well. 

“I missed the experience of living in the dorms, which some people say might be for the best,” she said. “But still, it's a college experience I missed out on.” 

However, Castaneda Vargas found a house to lease and moved in with two other international students – one from Brazil and the other from Italy. As the fall semester got underway, she was thrilled to finally be living the life she had dreamed about for years. Thanks to the help of scholarships, support and her own determination. 

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Not long into her first semester on campus though, Castaneda Vargas started to feel off.

“Yes, I was homesick and the transition to living abroad was a lot, but it was more than that,” she said. “I just didn't feel like myself.”

Soon, Castaneda Vargas stopped attending classes regularly and struggled to complete daily tasks. 

“I was so confused because here I was living a life I had dreamed of, but I wasn't happy,” she said. “It felt like I was slowly distancing myself from my dream, and I was upset with myself for doing it.” 

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At times, Castaneda Vargas would force herself to attend a social function or try to meet new people, but she struggled to make deep connections and the outings usually left her feeling more isolated than before. 

“I knew my mental health was not in a good place, and I knew something was wrong, but I didn't want there to be something wrong,” Castaneda Vargas said. “I wanted to be a happy college student, so for a while I just lived in denial.”

The problem was that she wasn't really living at all. It got to the point she couldn't leave her bed, she wasn't eating, and she stopped checking in with those around her. That's when she got a wake-up call. 

“I got an email saying I was in danger of losing my scholarship because my grades were too low,” she said. “It didn't necessarily come as a surprise, but something about seeing it in writing got my attention. I was about to lose everything I had worked so hard for. So, I decided to ask for help.” 

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Castaneda Vargas started by reaching out to the Student Counseling Center. Free to students, she was able to see a professional counselor and start addressing her struggles. 

“I was diagnosed with clinical depression and severe anxiety,” Castaneda Vargas said. 

Once again, this didn't necessarily surprise the sophomore. 

“I think this is something I'd lived with for a while, but it went undiagnosed,” she said. 

Castaneda Vargas' parents had always encouraged her to talk through challenges she faced growing up, but she admits she kept a lot to herself. 

“In middle school I was bullied for two years straight,” she said. “I didn't say anything to my parents, but eventually they found out.” 

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Castaneda Vargas faced the same problem in high school, but once again, struggled to tell her family what was happening. Without addressing these issues before adding in the stress of an international move, Castaneda Vargas' problems were compounded and left her feeling immobilized. 

“I couldn't lose my scholarship and go home without at least trying to fix the situation,” she said. “After starting therapy, I communicated with the scholarship committee and the Office of the Dean of Students and transparently shared what was going on.” 

Castaneda Vargas expressed her deep desire to stay at Texas Tech and committed to doing the work necessary to turn things around. She found that when honest and willing to ask for help, the community at Texas Tech was not only understanding but helped her get back where she rightfully belonged. 

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Paying It Forward

A year later, Castaneda Vargas is a peer educator for Risk Intervention & Safety Education (RISE) on campus and is educating other students about mental health and stress management. She also took on another field of study and is now a double major in both biology and psychology

The comeback didn't happen overnight though. 

“I still have days where my depression is bad, I'm just learning coping skills and now have a community of friends that know me well,” Castaneda Vargas said. “The best friends I have made in college are my coworkers at RISE.” 

Castaneda Vargas is the first to admit that RISE staff members aren't usually in those positions because they have it all figured out, they just know what the struggle is like. 

“My friends at RISE are really empathetic,” Castaneda Vargas said. “They get it.” 

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Castaneda Vargas did have to retake a class she failed during the fall of 2021, but her grades are now better than ever. She says this is an experience many students face, and she wants to see less stigma surrounding it. 

“Learning to manage your own time and learning how to study well takes time,” she said. “Many students come to college not knowing how to do either. The problem comes when you don't try. When you don't ask for help.” 

While college is certainly a place to gain academic knowledge, it's also the perfect time to learn soft skills like how to advocate for yourself. 

“It's hard to admit you can't do it by yourself because we live in a society that makes you think you should be able to,” Castaneda Vargas said. “But you won't make it very far without the support of others. 

“I was incredibly harsh on myself because as an international student, there was this part of me that felt I had to work harder and longer than anyone else to prove I belonged here.” 

Whether it's that narrative or another, Castaneda Vargas says we all have stories in our minds telling us why we're the exception. But the best thing Castaneda Vargas has learned in college so far, is that that narrative isn't true. 

Castaneda Vargas suggests thinking of a toolkit. 

“Instead of thinking, ‘I'm not strong enough,' you can replace that with, ‘I am strong, I'm just missing a few tools I need right now.'” 

And when it comes to tools, Castaneda Vargas knows where to point people. 

Starting with RISE, she highly recommends the following resources: 

“Taking care of yourself means you're strong,” Castaneda Vargas said. “From my experience with the resources at Texas Tech, no one treats you like they're here to save you. They help you save yourself. It's an empowering experience.”