Senior speaker Laurie Hernandez discusses mental health journey


Laurie Hernandez gave mental health advice to the class of 2023. (Photo courtesy of @presidenthurd on Instagram)

Laurie Hernandez, an Olympic gold medalist in gymnastics, mental health advocate and first-year acting student at New York University, addressed the Lafayette community last Monday at the 2023 Senior Speaker event. Moderated by President Nicole Hurd and organized by Lafayette Activities Forum (LAF), the event primarily focused on Hernandez’s thoughts and strategies surrounding mental health.

After competing in the 2016 Olympics and coming home with a gold medal, Hernandez found that she had a platform to share her experiences in the hopes of helping others. Despite her initial fears, Hernandez chose to use the platform she was given. Now, she finds hateful online media messages worthy of a laugh.

“No one chooses to be a mental health advocate,” Hernandez said. “But the internet says this is who you are.”

Although being an advocate on social media can cause much of her life to be public, Hernandez still takes the time for self-care by journaling, writing songs, watching TV, playing video games, drinking tea or taking showers. She finds the importance of these practices throughout her daily life.

“I cry a lot,” Hernandez said. “I [go] boxing two times a week.”

Her advice to the class of 2023 was deeply rooted in these mental health practices.

“Just embrace whatever you have going on. Life is not coming at you; you are coming at it,” Hernandez said. “Only you can decide you’re not meant to be there. If they let you in, you’re in, baby.”

Members of the senior class found value in the senior speaker’s discussion. 

“People were questioning how someone our age would be able to be a senior speaker because they’re supposed to give us advice about life, but I thought that she was so relatable,” Caroline McParland ’23 said. “I liked hearing about all the things that she’s done and also everything she plans to do. The fact that she was saying she didn’t feel like she peaked yet in life and she’s a literal Olympian is very encouraging.”

Hernandez believes that rather than finding a moment in your life when you are at your best — or “peak” — life is more like a mountain range where everyone has the opportunity to reach their full potential many times throughout their life.

“There’s no such thing as peak,” Hernandez said. “Peak is subjective.”

“Hearing Laurie reflect on everything she has accomplished so far and seeing her enthusiasm to tackle her next set of goals and have fun while doing it was really encouraging,” Caitlyn Carr ’23 wrote in an email. 

Toward the end of the event, students had the opportunity to ask Hernandez questions. These questions covered everything from perseverance to favorite Taylor Swift songs.

“My favorite takeaway from the event was the student questions that allowed Laurie to get to know people on an individual level. She was very open to talking to all students, taking photos and even taking various BeReals,” Sarah Smith ’24, the LAF director of culture, media and entertainment, said.

During the Q&A, Hernandez was asked for advice on finding one’s identity as a member of the LGBTQ+ community, a question that Hernandez said she had yet to be asked during an event.

“Self-discovery is what college is,” Hernandez said. “It’s a matter of letting yourself be. Labels are helpful to those who like labels. Where am I accepted? Where do I find joy?”

To those still wondering what it is like to win gold at the Olympics, Hernandez’s answer was simple and filled with gratitude and joy.

“My first thought was ‘Oh, it’s so heavy,’” Hernandez said of the medal.

Disclaimer: Sports Editor Caroline McParland ’23 did not contribute writing or reporting.