Boris Tsang / Sun Photography Editor

Eric Kohut ’22 and Erika Gonzalez ’22 are encouraging Cornell students to pursue projects that support the communities that raised them.

December 11, 2020

Student Organization Improves Mental Health Accessibility Through Community Outreach

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When New Jersey natives Eric Kohut ’22 and Erika Gonzalez ’22 began collaborating to expand mental health accessibility for immigrants, they had no idea that a pandemic was about to strike. 

If anything, it made them work harder. 

“We were on a much longer timeline [before the COVID-19 pandemic], and we weren’t expected to go through the entire registration process for another year or two,” Kohut said. 

But as the virus hit urban communities hard in northern New Jersey, the team was called to action much sooner than anticipated, Kohut said.

After Cornell sent its students home this March, Kohut and Gonzalez teamed up with Prof. Pilar Parra, nutritional sciences, to develop Hudson Origin, a non-profit that provides multilingual mental health screening services for the more than 500,000 residents of New Jersey’s Hudson County.

Kohut’s introduction to issues of mental health accessibility began as a first-year, after working at a daycare in a largely Hispanic community and then at the Cornell-run Northeast Americans with Disabilities Act Center, where he researched disparities in mental health services in the New Jersey area — especially for immigrants. 

Now, the non-profit operates an online database of mental health providers in northern New Jersey and works with its community partner, the Palisades Family Success Center, in building relationships with libraries, police stations, social service agencies and schools. 

This semester, Kohut and Gonzalez returned to Cornell to offer their fellow undergraduates the opportunity to take their Ivy League education into their communities by founding Cornell Origins Urban Life Development, an activist group that sponsors undergraduate research projects focused on community engagement.

COULD’s general body and executive board has continued to develop its Hudson Origin project. More recently, a group of club members kicked off an outreach program to meet the educational and health needs for homeless youth in Tompkins County.

“Not everyone has the same access to resources, but we realized that research institutions do have access to them,” Gonzalez said. “If we created an organization that provided students with these resources as early on as freshman or sophomore year, they can create projects of their own in the communities that raised them.”

According to Kohut, COULD aims to support its members by connecting students with faculty who grant research credits. By forming project teams for student collaboration and non-profit development, the goal is to encourage undergraduates to build a tangible relationship within their community that they can continue after graduation. 

“The main goal of this organization is to ensure that if you come from a community like our county in New Jersey, where it’s really urban, it doesn’t mean you can’t bring the access you have at a research institution like Cornell back to that community,” Gonzalez said. “We want to serve as an example and encourage students to become involved in research and take their education back to their communities.”