Communicators with a Purpose

By Angie Dixon (’94)
Originally published in Around the Oval magazine, Spring 2016

In February, after completing a successful pilot program in the Fall, Colorado State University launched YOU@CSU, a groundbreaking online mental health tool created to help students successfully cope with, and manage, their college life stressors. After all, transitioning to college for students is life changing, and for many, surprisingly overwhelming. While there is great anticipation from students to experience the new found freedoms of life away from their families – many for the first time, and in new cities, states and even countries – this anticipation can also lead to unexpected emotions and stress. Learning new academic schedules, competing with themselves and hundreds of students for those top grades, balancing jobs, meeting new friends and having a meaningful social life can seem too much for any student to handle. And sadly, there are times when students believe it is.


Joseph Conrad (’87), founder and CEO of Cactus Communications and Grit Digital Health, and employee Kyle Thornburg (’15). Photo courtesy Cactus Communications

Today, college campuses across Colorado and the country, including CSU, are dealing with the growing epidemic of suicide among college students. According to the Suicide Prevention and Resource Center, suicide is the leading cause of death among college and university students in the United States. Nearly 1,100 suicides happen across college campuses annually, with many other students having suicidal thoughts and attempting suicide.

Increased education and breaking down the stigmas of the mental health issues that lead to suicide – depression, anxiety, loneliness, feelings of confusion or inadequacy, and stress – are key in preventing suicide and suicidal thoughts in students., a non-profit organization focused on suicide prevention, awareness and support, reports that one in five college students believes that their depression level is higher than it should be, yet only six percent say they would seek help. Others don’t even see their struggles as mental health issues. They just see it as life.

That’s where YOU@CSU comes in. As the first technology of its kind, meaningful and personal communication is at the core of YOU@CSU. It helps students gain a better understanding of their mental health and of the hundreds of resources available, many through CSU, to support their overall health and wellbeing. The more students communicate and share with YOU@CSU, the more personalized information and resources the tool shares back with them. Currently, more than 947 students and 271 faculty and staff have registered accounts on YOU@CSU, and 1,1169 reality checks, or health assessments, have been completed. The average time spent on the site is more than five minutes.

This type of purposeful communication is no stranger to Joe Conrad (’87), the CSU alumnus, and Alumni Association member, whose brainchild is YOU@CSU.

Joe is the owner of Cactus Communications, a full-service marketing agency that he founded in 1990 with the mission to grow brands that help people thrive. With 55 full-time employees, Cactus has earned a national reputation for delivering innovative, creative campaigns. Because Joe is a firm believer that any problem can be solved through innovative, creative and good communications, in 2015, he formed Grit Digital Health LLC, a human-centric business that combines specialists in behavioral health, wellness, and technology with marketing communications. Joe brought this expertise, and experience from his work on the Colorado Office of Suicide and Prevention’s project, to create the YOU@CSU portal in partnership with Anne Hudgens and her team at the CSU Health Network.

Originally from Northwest Denver and the youngest of five children, Joe is the first from his family to graduate from high school. His eyes were always set on CSU and he worked hard to get there. He always knew he wanted to go to a great school with a great reputation.

At CSU, he wrote for the Rocky Mountain Collegian and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in technical journalism. He believes that his education paved the way for his future, and he holds a very special place in his heart for CSU.

“I feel I owe much of my success to all that I learned at CSU,” said Joe, “so it seems only appropriate for me to give back.”

And give back he does. Joe makes it a regular practice to hire CSU graduates, and in 2011, he and his wife, Erin, established the Joseph and Erin Conrad Social Impact Scholarship fund with the founding principle that you can apply good communications and marketing to make an impact on the world. While their fund receives generous contributions from a variety of donors, there is one donor in particular who stands out.

Kyle Thornburg (’15) was entering his senior year at CSU and was actively preparing for his future. He was graduating from the journalism and media communication program, a member of CSU’s presidential ambassadors program, and working in the College of Liberal Arts’ development office as a work study student. Not only was he applying his education to real-world situations, but he was building his portfolio of work, and his portfolio of contacts. He was also gaining a new appreciation of the importance of donors and giving back.

“I never anticipated how my work in the development office would affect me,” Kyle said. “What started out as just a job, turned into a passion of mine, which was working closely with donors. I got to see firsthand scholarship recipients meeting their donors and the impact donors were making on students. That was very special to me.”

Kyle turned that passion into action. The presidential ambassadors program encouraged graduating seniors to find a fund they could give to and support the giving cycle. Kyle’s communications background, coupled with his belief in making a positive impact on people, led him to the perfect fund for him – the Joseph and Erin Conrad Social Impact Scholarship.

From that moment on, it seems as if Joe and Kyle were destined to meet. Upon graduation, Kyle expressed his desire to stay in the communications field to his College of Liberal Arts development supervisors and Dr. Ann Gill. With their support, he was introduced to Cactus Communications, and Joe. Today, Kyle works for Joe at both Cactus Communications and Grit Digital Health LLC managing content for YOU@CSU. It was only after Joe hired Kyle that he learned about Kyle’s donation to his scholarship.

Joe’s and Kyle’s relationship is rooted in their joint beliefs of fostering success through philanthropy, collaboration and creativity. Those beliefs are reflected in YOU@CSU, which Joe and Kyle hope becomes the portal that generations of Rams use to lead thriving college lives.