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Attending College with a Spinal Cord Injury: Personal Experiences with Paralysis
What was your college experience?
My college experience was really great. I went to St. Louis University in St. Louis, Missouri. I was the first student in a wheelchair to live in a dorm, so they renovated a dorm room for me, put in a roll-in shower. And, it was a room that four guys had lived in the summer before I moved in, and they gave it to me all by myself. And they put a roll-in shower in, and that was a really great way to start on my own because I had people around me all the time if I needed anything. And that’s when I started using the system of having an OT student who worked for me a couple times a week to help with cooking and cleaning. I got schedule accommodations for classes—I never stared before 10:00 AM that first semester. So, I graduated in four years with a Bachelors Degree in Physiology.
College was great. So, I went to University of Alabama, and before ADA and everything else. But there was a dormitory that had six or eight wheelchair-accessible rooms, and there were suites that were combined in the middle with a bathroom. And luckily for me, it was in the girls’ first year student dorm. So, all my friends came over, it was a great talking point, even I, I had a friend who played football, they got to come over. It was far enough away from home to where I was independent, but only about an hour and half drive, so if I needed something, or mom, dad wanted to come visit, it was easy access. But it was a great experience. You find the ways to get to class, so if there’s a back door—and I would always go in and check with the instructor, “hey, is this on the floor that’s elevator accessible?” Or, the front of the steps, “do I need to go in the back?” I would always check it out to make my life easier because the instructor they don’t know. I would have a discussion with them and say, “you know, if it’s raining real hard, or storming or inclement weather I might not be there, but I would be in touch.” This was way before email and cell phones, so you had to talk to them. And I always found that talking with whichever, a boss, an instructor made my life easier, and it set the expectation with them on my needs. And if there was, if there was something special that we needed, it was always available.
He has just started college. So, he started a month ago and it’s a very specific program. It’s a program offered by the University of California at Berkeley, that’s called the Disabled Students Residence Program. It really is the best thing that’s ever happened to him and to us, because they really take care of everything that worried me about sending him to college. It’s been so wonderful because he is encouraged to do things himself, he is enabled to do things himself, and for better or worse, there’s always a responsible adult around in case he needs one. At this point, we are so happy that he is there, and so happy that he is happy, and that he is feeling independent, and he is feeling like he can do this. He has another peer group of other students, who aren’t mostly spinal cord injuries, but have major disabilities. They’re all intelligent kids, they’re all getting on with their lives, and it’s kind of like this whole band of teenagers, who are like, “Okay, so I got a problem. What’s your problem?”
When I went back to school, it was a big part of moving out because I lived in the dorms at DePaul, and so, which was helpful because it was accessible, and also there were other students around, and it was great to be right on campus and in the city and not at home. All universities a have disability services office. And, there's all sorts of accommodations— people take notes, I had a PA who'd come to class with me— but teachers are willing to make accommodations—they'll move the classroom, or whatever. For taking tests, I would dictate them to my computer and the professor was always okay with it or I could email stuff in, so it was much easier than you would think.
When I was young, I would never study, I always skipped school. But after my injury, I could never stay out of school. I went to school for psychology, but then I finally chose a remarkable class, was speech communications, because I had the gift to gab. So being able to communicate was easy for me, but I wanted to do it in a much more, a very precise way, where I could speak in such a way that you’re right to the point. And I struggled with that for a long time, and so, the best way for me to get out what had happened to me was going to school. And I met all sorts of people, you know, the way I look at it is the more knowledge that you have, the better you are at communicating what you have inside you to others. And so, college was a great experience for me. I loved it. I have a degree in communications, I have a medical billing certificate, I’ve been trained…I also have a teacher’s aide certificate. You know, school is cool, that’s the way I always looked at it. And it’s fun because you have that interaction with people; it makes you feel like, you know, like you are able again.
I worked at Boeing, and then reapplied to graduate schools. And it was very fulfilling because I didn’t have all the hassles; I actually got accepted at all the schools I applied to, so I was like, “Ok, now is the right time to go,” and it felt really good. So off we went to Boston, I went to school at Harvard, and that was a really great experience. Graduate schools are a little different, right, especially MBA. I think, you know, the stereotypical 27-year-old single male is built for MBA, especially grad school. Because it’s like, MBA is really a “Masters in Business and Alcoholism.” And you just go out, and you go nuts, and everybody has a great time. The farther out you’re on that ring of, you know, away from the stereotypical guy, you fit in a little bit less. So for me, I really injected myself into the culture there. You know, Faith was a phenomenal partner in the partners’ club, you know so she was very active. I hosted poker games, and found ways to inject myself in the culture to make sure that, you know, Faith and I were really networking well, and making friends. But you had to be a bit forceful, because, again, we’re a little bit off from that stereotypical bullseye. So, it was a really fun two years though.
College was busy. The campus was very hilly, so I drove pretty much from class to class. Like by the time I left my house in the morning and got back, I probably put together and took apart my wheelchair 12 times. Like, it was a lot, I mean even just going to eat. I was in really good physical condition during my college years because I pushed up hills, down hills. And I worked on campus, and so, I was just there a lot and it was good, it was a good experience. I got a degree in Middle Grades Education, so I can teach middle school students. Everybody’s like, “why?” I’m like, “they’re great.”
I'm actually currently attending Northeastern University, and I am majoring in social work. I would like to work in the health care field, you know, preferably, like, in a rehab unit, similar to, like, Schwab or RIC in the spinal cord unit. Just because, you know, it would, you know, it would mean a lot to a patient if they, you know, let's say they were injured, you know, they're depressed, the world, they feel the world has ended, and I come in there. I've been successful, you know, now I can serve as a role model, you know.
Oh that was, yeah, that was educational for me, too when he decided that he wanted to go back to school, which I thought was a great idea. And, we had a van then that he couldn’t drive, but I drove it. So, he signed up for classes, well then what I would do was talk to the professor, “Was it okay if I took the class too?” –I didn’t take the tests or any of that stuff—“Yeah, you’re sitting here anyway, go ahead.” So, I got an education, too. And, we went through it; we had to go to two or three different schools, because we picked up a class here and a class there. But that was great for him because, again, it gave him something to do; this was prior to getting his job, you know. So, that was good, and he was the first one to graduate from Louis University in a wheelchair. And, it was good for me too!
I got a degree in 2003, it's my undergraduate degree and that was in Communications, so that probably has a lot to do with why I'm a good interview. I have a minor in Deaf Studies as well as Linguistic Anthropology, so that was in 2003. And then I got my master's degree in Community Economic Development and now I'm going for my PhD. I've just finished my comprehensive exam so I'm a candidate; all I have left is the dissertation.
My college experience was great. It was a really hard transition, I think especially freshman year. I’m not sure if I was quite ready to go to college, but I figured it out, kind of, when I got there. Freshman year was hard, I felt like I spent a lot of time just taking care of myself and just getting through the day. I felt like I had a lot less time to spend on my classes, and being social, things like that. After I got through that first year, things got a lot easier. And in the end, I feel like I had a really normal or better than normal college experience. I was worried when I went in that I was going to have a really different experience than my twin brother, and he was going to have this typical college experience, and I was going to have to deal with all these other things, that I wasn’t going get to do everything I wanted to. That didn’t end up being true. I made great friends, and I was in clubs, and went abroad and took all sorts of normal things like that. It was just really fun. I graduated from Stanford in June, and I’m going to work as a teaching assistant this year at Stanford, and then I’m thinking probably medical school or maybe a PhD. But right now, I’m leaning towards medical school.
Really based on program as opposed to accessibility. When I was—I started off at community college, because I was still getting independent, you know, working through those daily routine issues, so I didn't go to college for a couple of years— you know my undergrad, general education stuff. So, I decided to go to UIC (University of Illinois, Chicago) to the Jane Addams School of Social Work; because of their program. It was close to home, so I could commute back and forth. The school itself was not real accessible, it wasn't bad. But it's Chicago and, you know, we've all experienced Chicago—Chicago is not the most accessible city. But the school was really good about, you know, changing classes to a different room if I couldn't get to it, because of an elevator issue or whatever. So it was definitely not horrible; it worked out pretty well.
After high school, I took one year off to focus on power lifting as well as rehab. Then one year after, I continued to get my Associates in Business and Administration—I finished Ottawa University with a Bachelors in Business and Administration.
I went to Ole Miss, then Ole Miss to Delta State, and now I’m in a PhD program at Mercy University, I’m a second-year student. Hopefully I can graduate next year, it’s all depending on comps and my dissertation. Ole Miss was accessible, Ole Miss was completely accessible. But when I went for my master’s, buildings were accessible, but the bathroom was inaccessible and that was like the worst. But me always being a strong willed and strong minded, I would adapt, and just do what I had to do to be able to move past it and keep going. I don’t like to let stuff hold me back or keep me down, I find a way.
I just graduated high school, so I started to go to the University of Memphis, and I tried that and it went somewhat okay but I wasn’t too into school at the time. So, I just, like I said, I was not coping well once I went back home and just not making good decisions, yeah.
Because I was a basketball player, I had a huge support system. My coach, my teammates, I had a lot of the same friends—because I got injured in May, and I was out of the hospital by October, and I was back in school by January so I didn’t really miss a beat. So, all of my friends were still there rallying behind me and so it was really great. So, graduate school—I majored in Health and Fitness Management in undergrad. I knew that wasn’t going to have much of a future in Exercise Science just because it’s such a physical field. I was introduced to rehab counseling through the assistant director at Clayton State, so for me it was like, “alright, I think I want to try that out,” and I just dove right into it. And for me, I went to Georgia State University and started clinical rehabilitation counseling. And through that I did an internship for Georgia Vocational Rehabilitation Agency. And I just found it to be a super-rewarding field because before my injury, I didn’t know many people who had disabilities, and after I got injured I was exposed to so many people with disabilities. And for people with disabilities, employment and being a taxpayer is huge. So, the fact that I have the opportunity to bring that back to so many lives was really rewarding for me.