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Running helped Class of 2013 student speaker triumph over social anxiety
May 13, 2013
Just a few years ago, Albino “Albe” Folcarelli of East Providence was terrified to speak in public, afflicted with a general anxiety disorder that inhibited every part of his life. Now he is graduating from the Community College of Rhode Island as the Liston Campus student government president and the Class of 2013 student commencement speaker, ready to appear on stage in front of thousands.
It’s safe to say that Folcarelli’s anxiety has been conquered. The 27-year-old with a 3.98 GPA is on his way to Columbia University as a premed/biochemistry and Spanish double major, hoping to become a pediatric psychiatrist so he can help children who are going through what he has already overcome.
“My anxiety was really bad when I was young,” Folcarelli said. “It interfered with everything. It was keeping me from being myself.”
He never had panic attacks or other episodes, and he learned how to tamp himself down and feign ease and comfort, but the disorder was pervasive in his life. It made itself known in small ways that limited his potential.
Folcarelli refrained from any activity that stretched his comfort zone and could never relax or focus in school. If he was late for a class he would skip it entirely rather than walk in with the eyes of his fellow students upon him. He dropped out of high school in 2002, as soon as he was legally able, and went to work.
Folcarelli worked jobs that didn’t challenge his anxiety too badly, such as washing dishes and detailing cars. He worked his way up to being a waiter, which was one of many small victories in his quest to overcome his anxiety.
Truly conquering it began with a jog.
“I was home one night and I was bored so I decided to go for a run,” Folcarelli said. “I ran a half mile and I felt like I was ready to die. I didn’t like that so I started running a half mile every day until I could run a mile.”
Running gave Folcarelli small, tangible goals to work toward and he found a potent metaphor that he used to defeat his fears: Everything in life can seem easy when you take it in small steps. Eventually, Folcarelli ran a marathon.
“[Running] was the first time in my life that I felt totally free,” Folcarelli said. “It totally changed my life.”
By age 24, Folcarelli was doing much better. His anxiety was largely under control and he had loving family and friends; he had started swimming and biking to compete in triathlons and was in great shape; he had even been in a great relationship before his girlfriend went away to college. She, too, was a high school dropout and Folcarelli is still amazed at what they both were able to accomplish.
“I’m very spiritual so I believe that God provided for us and it was meant to be,” Folcarelli said.
By now, Folcarelli was doing everything he could to systematically stretch his comfort zone. There was one thing that began to seem like an obvious next step: returning to school.
“I wanted to make a difference,” he said. “I realized that life is terrible when you have a job that you hate. I wanted to have a career and do something positive … I went back to school and absolutely fell in love with it.”
The General Studies major got involved on campus, becoming a chemistry lab assistant and joining the Liston Campus student government. He became president of the campus’ student government last year.
Folcarelli knew he would have to give speeches in this role but, “I didn’t even think about it,” he said. “Now I know that the more you let fear and anxiety determine your decisions, the less power you have.”
Earlier this month, as he held in his hands an acceptance letter from Columbia University – his first choice – Folcarelli reflected on how far he has come.
“When I got the letter I thought about how bad my anxiety used to be, and that I dropped out of high school, and it was an amazing moment,” he said.
Folcarelli, formerly so inhibited by anxiety, is bound for one of the most difficult universities in the nation and about to give a major speech to a field house full of strangers. He is a little nervous, yes, but no more so than anyone else would be.
“It’s going to be tough but I’m going to take it one step at a time,” he said.