Capella student climbing mountains to end stigma of mental illness

April 19, 2017

The road to a degree in higher ed is often compared to a journey.

A path marked with challenges, climbs, plateaus, and a rush of adrenaline that comes with reaching the summit. Capella University student Samantha Mangum understands that experience perfectly. She has climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Kosciuszko, the tallest mountains in Africa and Australia respectively, and hopes to conquer the highest peaks on the remaining continents shortly.

This past spring, Mangum, who is in the Master’s in Mental Health Counseling program at Capella, reached the top of Mount Aconcagua, just shy of 23,000 feet, in Argentina. It was her second try at tackling the mountain (her first effort was ended by bad weather just steps from the summit), and it took months of grueling training and 18 days of arduous climbing to complete the trek.

Mangum not only succeeded in her quest, she also used her adventure to raise more than $50,000 to help people with mental illness.

It started with a crash

In 2002, it seemed unlikely that Mangum would ever be able to walk across a room—let alone climb a mountain. The Texas native was injured in a car accident and had to undergo surgery to repair a shattered hip and pelvis. During recovery, she also struggled with PTSD, depression, and survivor’s guilt (a friend riding in the same vehicle had died in the crash). “I realized that some people live in dark places,” Mangum says. “They have to struggle with mental challenges every single day.”

Rehabilitation eventually gave Mangum the chance to walk again, and in 2008, she traveled to Africa to climb Mount Kilimanjaro and spent a week working in an orphanage in an effort to give something back to the country she was visiting. Over time, an idea grew: Was there a way she could use her climbs to fund charitable causes she supported?

Mangum eventually moved to Colorado and currently works as a recovery care coordinator with Boulder Mental Health Partners, which supported her South American climb. “The effort connects my vocational goals and my avocation,” Mangum says of her project. “All the funds I raise go directly to wellness classes for clients —yoga, hiking, support groups—and educating the community about mental health.” Every dollar raised for the Rise Above Stigma campaign goes to end the stigma of mental illness.

Higher aspirations, higher education

When she’s not working or training for her treks in the foothills around Boulder, Mangum is pursuing her master’s degree, which she expects to complete in the fall of 2018. She likes that she can access the Capella courseroom from wherever she happens to be at the moment (though, she notes, it’s not always possible to get a Wi-Fi connection at base-camp level!). “I’m a sponge. I love learning,” she says. “And with Capella, I didn’t have to choose between my life and learning. I could fit school around all of the other pieces of my life that are important to me. I knew I was exactly where I needed to be.”

A master’s degree will allow Mangum to carry out counseling functions associated with her job—an additional skill that Mangum can’t wait to acquire. Already, she has found herself applying her learning to her job. “The structure around Capella’s program has taught me the clinical language I need for my position,” she says. “I also think it’s taught me how to be a better human being.”

Mangum says attending a residency in Chicago last fall had a huge impact on her learning. “There were just a dozen or so learners, but there was amazing diversity in the room,” she says. “I realized that everyone has a story, and you don’t have to rush into connections. They’ll unfold.”

She has also appreciated the support of her instructors, some of whom have encouraged her to pursue a PhD when she completes her master’s. The idea is appealing to Mangum, but right now she’s got her eye on the path she’s on: “I always say, ‘One step at a time,’ or one class at a time. I look at everything as a mountain. You have to learn to take every situation one step at a time or you’re going to get overwhelmed.”

Mangum eventually hopes to climb all Seven Summits, as the tallest peaks on each continent are collectively known. But even if she doesn’t reach the top of every one, she knows that—as with her education—she’ll learn something from the journey. Every step forward is, in some way, a miracle—a second chance after the car accident she suffered. “It’s a little strange,” Mangum says. “I went through something that was truly terrible, but it ended up being one of the best things that could happen to me because it transformed my life.

“Every day I have the opportunity to make the world a little better.”


Learn more about Capella’s MS in Mental Health Counseling program.

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