Luther ‘Cole’ Kissam V is pushing himself to go after opportunities

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A high school crush and a broken leg helped Luther “Cole” Kissam V find his passion for writing, but working through his mental health struggles set Cole on a path to be a published author, and helped him develop the growth mindset he needed after dropping out of college, twice. Cole will graduate from UNC Charlotte in December 2023 with a bachelor’s of English, but there were many times that he wasn’t sure if he would be in college at all, much less graduating with Honors.

Cole’s mental health challenges emerged with a bipolar disorder diagnosis when he was young, so he attended a treatment center middle school in Utah that was part school, and part therapy. He continued his education at a boarding preparatory high school in Pennsylvania, and accidentally fell into creative writing when Cole’s crush invited him to do some spoken word poetry.

“I wrote something to impress her, I read it, and it was not very good, but I got some good feedback. I realized it feels pretty good to express myself– I like this!–so I kept writing and I had great high school teachers who encouraged me to continue.”

When Cole broke his leg his junior year and could no longer run cross country, he turned to a writing coach who was a professional poet and editor to help him fulfill the requirements for his extra-curricular activity. His passion for writing and reading literature took hold, and after high school Cole started his higher education at Emory University. But in his first semester Cole realized Emory wasn’t a good fit for him, and when a close friend died by suicide, it created a “wicked cocktail” for handling his own mental health issues, so he dropped out of college for the first time.

Unsure what else to do, Cole moved to Charlotte where his family now lived, and spent time in a partial hospitalization mental health facility. While working through treatment, Cole decided he did want to try college again, and chose UNC Charlotte so he could be close to family and continue receiving the support he knows he needs.

More of that support came from Student Assistance and Support Services (SASS) when Cole needed to address his mental health, and their office helped him finish the semester despite a hospitalization. In the subsequent term, Cole needed to leave school again, this time for more intensive treatment that included electroconvulsive therapy. Cole wasn’t sure if he was going to come back again, so the SASS office helped Cole drop out of college a second time.

At a crossroads, Cole went to another in-patient treatment facility in Ohio for therapy and to adjust his medications. This extended time out of school and intense focus on finding the balance finally worked. “Since then, I have been able to manage my bipolar [disorder] much better; I have had only two episodes in the last two and a half years. At this point, bipolar is one of those things where it’s not part of my daily thought patterns. I decided I wanted to go back and get a college degree, I wanted to finish what I started. So I worked with Katie Russo in SASS, she’s incredible, and she helped me come back and re-apply.”

“I live my life and I have self-care things that I do to take care of my bipolar disorder, but you would never know. I’m a pretty normal college student who is anxious about graduating and unsure of the future. For bipolar disorder, certainly there are challenges that pop up and it affects my self-care routine, sleep, and alcohol consumption. But for the most part it doesn’t stop me from doing the things I want to do anymore, like getting a college degree.”

Cole’s journey through finding his mental balance also turned into a published book of poetry titled “Have I Told You About My Superpowers.” It’s written in three parts and reflects managing his highs, his lows and stabilizing in the middle. Cole first thought he was a better writer without his meds, but has come to realize that “learning to temper the fire actually means I’ve shaped and created stronger bones. It’s a controlled burn.”

While at UNC Charlotte, Cole has taken workshop and seminar classes where his writing has flourished, but not without having to stoke the flames. When he took an independent study class on the art and craft of editing. “I brought [my novel] to Dr. Balaka Basu to learn to edit it, and the first thing she said to me was ‘Cole, I need you to know this isn’t something that is going to be published; it’s not of that quality.’ That was what I needed to hear, because if no one ever tells you that, how can you grow?”

Cole takes on these challenges daily–to read, to write, to live and be moved by experiences– in an effort to push himself into the hustle and go after opportunities. “Not everyone makes the choices to do the hard things. I have been forced to adopt a growth mindset because I very rarely do things right on the first try. So I look at things like ‘what’s going to help me grow, what’s going to push, how am I going to learn something new this attempt?’ so that one day I can do the things I want to do.”

After graduation Cole isn’t exactly sure what’s next, but he is confident he will find the path forward. “My English degree is going to help me get writing projects; I’ve got a great job right now – I’m the writer in residence on a sailing yacht that does marine conservation work in the tropical eastern pacific. I get to travel, meet people, explore the world, and practice my Spanish. It’s a fantastic job that writing has offered me. I believe in doing work that fulfills me, and as long as you have your basic needs met, it’s priceless.”