Lady Gaga once sang, and later created a foundation, in the name of reminding all that they are “born this way.”
Inspired by the mission of Gaga’s foundation, Cole Shusted created a Penn State chapter called the “Born This Way Student Fund at Penn State.”
This newly formed organization aims to create a safe space for students as well as raise awareness about mental health. The group also plans to raise funds for the original foundation created by Gaga.
Though it is currently a small group of roughly 10 students, Shusted expressed hope for growth in the fall semester, but he said he has “no idea what it’s going to look like.”
“If I can make it so that there’s a community where people feel like… they can fully be themselves whether it’s your gender or sexual identity or mental health-specific issues, I want there to be a place for that,” Shusted (junior-security risk analysis) said.
Both Shusted and Vice President Taylor DeMarcantonio acknowledged the importance of the campus mental health resources, such as Counseling and Psychological Services, but the pair emphasized a want to create a space that was run by students versus adult staff.
DeMarcantonio (junior-elementary and early childhood education) explained that, from her previous experiences, when parents or teachers offered their support or kind words, DeMarcantonio felt it was out of obligation rather than genuine concern.
Now in her leadership position in this organization, she said she has an “opportunity” to provide a safe space for others.
“I want to give [future members] what I never had,” she said. “Growing up… I never felt comfortable discussing the way my brain was working, the things I went through and my mental health.”
Shusted said there will be no fee to join the club that is still in its developmental stages.
“The goal of it is to not be rigid,” Shusted said, referring to organizational structures. “I just want it to be a place made of people.”
Coming from Georgia, Shusted said he came to Penn State with a desire to create something new at University Park, but he said he didn’t “have the courage to do it at first.”
He said his idea of creating a local chapter of the foundation was “sparked” after watching Gaga’s speech during the 2019 Grammy Awards, in which she encouraged the audience to understand the importance of mental health awareness.
“If you see somebody that’s hurting, don’t look away,” Gaga said during her acceptance speech for “Best Pop Duo/Group Performance” for the film, “A Star Is Born.” “And if you’re hurting, even though it might be hard, try to find that bravery within yourself to dive deep and go tell somebody.”
Shusted added that mental health awareness is something he has always been “passionate” about because of his history with anxiety and panic attacks.
“It was really bad,” he said. “I almost had to go to the hospital, and I was eventually diagnosed with OCD.”
After his diagnosis, Shusted said he was introduced to a “new community” of those affected by mental health conditions. He said he feels this group doesn’t get the “level of respect they should be given.”
As he learned more about his disorder, Shusted said he became more aware and less content with the stigma surrounding mental health conditions.
“I don’t like that we keep things all bottled up all the time and it has to be weird to struggle because I think it’s very normal,” Shusted said.
In addition to CAPS, he said he would like his organization to collaborate with similar clubs on campus as well as the Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity.
Regarding the foundation's namesake, Shusted said Gaga’s anthem “literally saved [his] life.”
He explained that he first heard the song on the car radio in 2011, years before he told people he was gay.
“I just remember thinking, ‘Wow, this song is so empowering… and how we should live — open to people no matter who they love, where they’re from or what they look like,’” Shusted said.
But despite appreciating the message of the song, Shusted said he wasn’t able to fully enjoy it. He said he had feared the repercussions of coming out, based on the way those already out around him were bullied.
Shusted added that he “officially” came out to friends, family and peers in 2018.
“I just so badly wanted to live my life being myself, which everyone should have the opportunity to do.”