When Class of 2017 member Jacqueline Henao wanted a tattoo to represent the higher power that helped her through her depression, she chose a black semicolon on her right wrist.
It represents Project Semicolon, a national nonprofit dedicated to suicide prevention and awareness. The tattoo is a reminder of a higher power, her own self-worth and is a symbol of the perseverance Henao displayed on her way to graduating from the Community College of Rhode Island this month with a certificate in Human Services.
“When I decided to put everything I went through behind me I had to do something for myself to permanently imprint it, and the tattoo was a way to do that,” Henao said.
The tattoo is located over a scar from an attempt to cut herself, and it represents closure on a period of depression that coincided with her three-year break from studies at CCRI. The difficult time, however, also led Henao to discover her passion for helping others who have struggled with depression.
“I stop all the time and think about how far I’ve come,” she said. “My graduation means a lot to my family. For me, there were a lot of people who said I wasn’t going to go back and finish. This is an opportunity to prove to them that I could.”
Henao, a Central Falls resident, arrived at CCRI in 2008 with plans to become a medical administrative assistant. She was working through her prerequisites when, in 2011, her father was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Henao, who had been paying her own way through college one or two courses each semester, decided to leave CCRI.
Her father’s diagnosis triggered a period of depression for Henao, who continued to volunteer with area youths through a local nonprofit.
It was through her volunteer work she realized her passion for helping young people, a revelation that, along with her father’s cancer remission, triggered positive progress in her recovery.
She continued her healing by leaning on her friends, family and rediscovered Christian faith.
“I know it sounds a little cliché, but God has placed certain people in my life to help me get through it,” she said.
As her recovery progressed, discussions turned to the prospect of Henao returning to school. At the urging of her family, in particular her late grandmother, Henao decided to re-enroll at CCRI with a clearer focus.
“My family has always believed in me, sometimes more than I believed in myself. They pushed me and my siblings to be something in life,” she said.
She knew she wanted to use her experiences with depression to help students who are dealing with similar issues.
“I know what it feels like to feel like you have no one, so I feel like I can use my own experiences to help someone so it doesn’t go as far as it did with me,” she said. “I want to help keep people from getting to that point.”
With that in mind, she enrolled in the Human Services certificate program. Graduates often find employment in governmental social service agencies, schools and nonprofit agencies.
Through CCRI she worked with the Nowell Leadership Academy, which was founded to serve pregnant and parenting young adults in the area. Her experiences at Nowell have reinforced her commitment to helping students struggling with depression, suicidal thoughts or addiction issues.
“You shouldn’t force change on someone. You have to let them figure it out on their own while you continue to support them,” she said.
She is interviewing for jobs and hopes someday to work for the Rhode Island Department of Children, Youth and Families.