Content warning: This article contains discussion of mental health and suicide.
Occidental lacrosse player Julia Shwayder (senior) was honored April 4 at a LA Kings game for winning the title of CalHOPE Courage Honoree in March. Each month, the award honors two student-athletes at California colleges and universities who have overcome mental health struggles associated with significant personal hardships. At the end of this academic year, two student-athletes from the pool of monthly winners will also receive the CalHOPE Courage Award, where a $15,000 donation in their names will go toward mental health services at their schools.
As an organization dedicated to providing crisis counseling and mental health support to communities impacted by natural disasters, CalHOPE shares the stories of their nominees to help inspire others to battle through the challenges in their lives.
According to the honoree page, Shwayder received recognition because she demonstrated courage in the face of adversity. Before Shwayder started her sophomore year at Occidental, her dad died by suicide.
“He was one of those people who could make you feel like you’re the most important person in the room at all times,” Shwayder said. “To me, he’s honestly my best friend. I miss him a lot.”
At home, Shwayder said, her dad was a softy who would cry at American Idol storylines; he was a man who once barbecued in the rain while tap dancing to “Singin’ in the Rain” with a bumblebee umbrella. Contrastingly, at work, as a co-owner of Unique Properties, people called him Darth Shwayder because of his toughness which stemmed from his belief in people’s abilities.
Shortly after her dad died, Shwayder’s teammate and good friend Zoe Nussbaum ‘22 passed away last year.
Head women’s lacrosse coach Hannah Khin nominated Shwayder for the award. Khin said she has never had a bad moment with Shwayder, and her resilience through these struggles was why she nominated her. According to Khin, Shwayder received her honoree recognition during one of the game’s intermissions while her whole team cheered on from their section.
“Knowing what she’s gone through, she’s still showed up for the team every single day,” Khin said. “And there are definitely days where everyone has their off days, but she’s still there no matter what, which I think also just goes to show the kind of person she is. She’s not going to let other people down.”
Shwayder, a psychology major, said therapy has been instrumental to her survival, and she wants to become a therapist herself to help others.
“My therapist is a wonderful lady,” Shwayder said. “There’s so much of my own self that I wouldn’t understand properly, and I don’t think I would be my best self or be in the position to be my best self without uncovering those deep truths.”
Shwayder said she organized three walks with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and worked with the Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students Rob Flot to provide the lacrosse team with a therapist after Nussbaum’s passing.
Khin said Shwayder brings a lot of calmness and maturity to the team, and when teammates are struggling, they feel comfortable opening up to Shwayder.
“I just have one of those personalities where people kind of come up to me in the bathroom stalls, and they don’t know me and they’re like, ‘Let me tell you about my life,’” Shwayder said.
One of her longtime best friends, Jessica Robinson, said it would make sense for Shwayder to become a therapist because she is a genuinely good person who cares about people.
“Whether something happened to her family or team or friends, she’s the one who will put it together and deal with it and take care of everybody around her,” Robinson said. “She’s truly one of the most amazing people that you’ll ever meet, and I think that a lot of people who know her would say the exact same thing. I think everyone needs a Julia in their life.”
Robinson said she and Shwayder have been friends since childhood, and share many fond memories. Robinson said Shwayder is also very generous and thoughtful.
“Right after I went through a bad breakup a few years ago, I’ll never forget that, because I was on the phone with her complaining and then I walked home, and there was a delivery. It was a sweet little note [with cupcakes],” Robinson said. “It said, ‘Thinking of you, sending a virtual hug, wish I could be there to cuddle — XO, J.’”
Robinson said she is excited for a lifetime of friendship with Shwayder, and they have plans to one day own a farm together in the middle of nowhere with lots of cows.
“I’m so excited to see what comes for her, and see the opportunities that come to her,” Robinson said. “And just experience life and grow old with her. That sounds like we’re getting married, but we’re going to have our farm one day.”
Shwayder said having hope for the future is crucial when struggling, and it is fitting that the award is called the CalHOPE Courage Award.
“I think if you have hope for yourself and hope for tomorrow and hope for the world, it’s important knowing that people are hopeful for you too,” Shwayder said.