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Dean’s Award 2023 – Holly Wilson uses triumph over her struggles to help others cope

Holly Rennee Wilson, a Child and Adolescent Development major, is the Dean's Award recipient for the College of Education. (Sacramento State/Bibiana Ortiz)

For people who grow up experiencing trauma – whether physical or mental – learning to cope can be a long process.

Support systems for the traumatized are crucial.

Creating such systems is essential to Holly Rennee Wilson, 36. She will graduate summa cum laude with a bachelor's degree in Child and Adolescent Development and be honored with this year’s Dean’s Award from the College of Education. Deans’ Awards are given annually at Commencement to seven outstanding graduating students, one for each of Sac State’s academic colleges.

“Honestly, it’s taken me so by surprise, and it’s been overwhelming, to say the least,” Wilson said. “I’m like, ‘there’s so many students here. I’m from a small town. There’s no way I’ll ever be seen here or noticed.’

“And I'm still worried, like, something bad is going to happen, (or) I'm not going to make it to the finish line. That's what anxiety is."

Wilson’s struggles with anxiety and complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD) are a significant reason she pursued a career in psychological development and education.

Wilson was born in Modesto, the youngest of three children, and raised in Ceres. At age 11, she moved to Stockton, where she lived until returning to Modesto at about 22. Wilson’s mother and father were teen parents who did not attend college.

“(There are) a lot of people who might be in similar situations. It's easy to slip through the cracks because it's really hard to see on the inside how bad it's hurting, (and) what's going on inside or at home." -- Holly Rennee Wilson, Dean’s Award recipient for the College of Education

Her parents divorced when Wilson was a few months old. Her mother was in and out of rehab for substance abuse, and her father frequently was jailed. Wilson received support from her extended family and lived intermittently with her grandparents, a highly religious couple who employed tight discipline.

“My childhood is weird because I (had) this balance between strict Christian values of Mormonism. But with my mom, or my stepdad, or whoever, it was just like chaos,” she said.

After high school, Wilson attended Delta College but dropped out, unable to manage the pressure she felt. She worked in retail for several years and became a supervisor at a corporate chain. Wilson said she was fired from that job when she was six months pregnant. Again, she relied on family and friends as well as state resources while considering what to do next.

She eventually found education work as a paraprofessional in intervention, ultimately choosing to return to college hoping to improve “some of the structural social injustices in the school systems” she had observed.

Wilson graduated from Modesto Junior College with associate degrees in Social and Behavioral Sciences, Child Development, Early Childhood Education, and Psychology. She transferred to Sac State during the pandemic and realized she wanted to work with young adults rather than children.

“Originally, I was trying to be a credentialed special (education) teacher, which I'm still interested in doing,” Wilson, recipient of several scholarships and awards, said. “But I was realizing I'm really interested in the social-emotional aspects of some of the work, and so that's kind of why I started exploring other fields.”

Wilson, who identifies as a cisgender pansexual, attends college while raising her son Levi with the help of her partner and fiancée Shannon Hess. Wilson continues working with an LGBTQ+ advocacy group at Modesto Junior College.  

Following her mother’s suicide, Wilson, then 23, struggled with alcohol abuse and depression. She said her own “reckless behavior and self-destruction” led to a suicide attempt. Now five years sober, Wilson said those experiences led to her desire to work with teenagers and young adults.

“(There are) a lot of people who might be in similar situations,” said Wilson, who will be the first in her family to earn a bachelor’s degree. “It's easy to slip through the cracks because it's really hard to see on the inside how bad it's hurting, (and) what's going on inside or at home."

Sasha Sidorkin, dean of the College of Education, said Wilson created an after-school mentoring program for diverse youth in one of her Child and Adolescent classes. After graduation, Wilson plans to create a community center focused on art therapy, Sidorkin said.

"Holly exemplifies the qualities we seek in our students,” Sidorkin said. “Throughout her time at Sacramento State, Holly has actively mentored students in the Inclusion Special Needs Practicum and showcased her interest in counseling children. (She) has consistently demonstrated her commitment to early intervention and inclusion.”

Wilson also has been accepted to a Sac State master’s program in Child and Adolescent Development.

“I am so excited to continue this journey at Sac State, as this will be one step closer to teaching in higher education someday,” she said. “(Child Development) feels like home with my peers and professors, a place in education I belong, where I do the most healing as I seek to understand myself and others … (and work) to repair damage through alternative therapies to other trauma survivors.”

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About Daniel Wilson

Daniel Wilson joined the Sac State communications team in 2022 as a writer and editor. He previously worked at the Sacramento Bee as an audience engagement producer and reporter. He graduated from Sac State with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism in 2018. He plays video games, watches pro wrestling, and loves spending time with his wife and cat.

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