My journey as an undergraduate came to the underwhelming zoom! zoom! zoom! fueled COVID-19 finish line a month ago, after the fears of the world came crashing upon us, the Class of 2020. I’m finally ready for the both of us to gaze into the rearview mirror, to reflect upon the energy, the drive, the strategy for winning the trophy and graduating from college. It’s a feeling like no other, to have experienced so much in less than four years, with the unique circumstances of attending a top tier university with a physical disability. Was all the effort worth it? How much will my degree be of value, because after all, there’s no job offer yet. Coming out of the gates as a legacy Gator and the 6th in my immediate family to attend, I had a lot of tradition to uphold, to keep the rites of passage burning. But as the laps ensued, I really did it my way. With my own crew. And I can honestly say, nobody else did it quite like me. But at the end of the day, I hope others will.
College was for most of us, the late nights’ studying, the endless events, the leadership immersion, the football games, the new friends. But for someone with a disability, it’s also the unique challenges of hiring and training staff as Personal Care Attendants, the advocacy empowerment, the ADA dorm life, the meetings with faculty to request accommodations, the once-in-a-lifetime experiences that came through Gator connections in cities across America.
On that final lap, as the last assignment was due, nothing was going to stop me from pressing that “Submit” key, not even being one of those COVID19 seniors, not my self-doubt, nor Cerebral Palsy. These obstacles would not define me, but rather fire up the fuel for whom I chose to become! For all those armchair enthusiasts who watched me from the sidelines, college might have seemed like the natural next step. But the amount of planning to attend a major university, of altering your course, of confidence in your abilities, is breathtaking!
If it weren’t for my village of support, my very own pit crew, none of it would have happened. None. Especially my parents. Graduation was a long time coming… Starting with those site visits to campuses in my sophomore year. And then the applications and essay writing in my junior year, and finally the “go for it” approach, which resulted in a 100% acceptance rate at 4 colleges of my choice, with scholarships! And then in my senior year of high school, when my family and I strung at least a dozen mega-charts of “pros and cons” across the walls, it became real. Like race cars drafting neck-to-neck real. The uncertainty set in, the very-real-fear of being 2.5 hours away from home for the first time. I knew that I had a lot more to deal with than the typical student, but nobody knew how much of an effort it would take. There were two options: 1) stay closer to home and attend the University of Central Florida, where I might feel safer in the short run, and maybe even commute from home; or 2) Take a leap of faith and challenge myself to branch out and explore what independence had to offer at UF. Deep down in my heart of hearts, The University of Florida was home for me and I have never looked back. I guess I truly was born bleeding orange and blue after all!
The true Saturday sport in our household is College Football. As a naive freshman and a “Baby Gator” less than a week old on campus, I unintentionally (?) upended the Gator Athletic Association over the lack of accessible football seating in the student section. Say whaaat? Looking back now, that was pretty gutsy to persuade the associate director and the head of UF’s ADA compliance to take a meeting with a lowly freshman. Long story short, the athletic association quickly transitioned back into ADA compliance and even changed the pricing policy for companion tickets, for seating at all Gator-hosted events. There is much more to be done in this area but I’m going to be remembered here when I come back as an alum to a Gator Game, and see students with wheelchairs sitting alongside their friends …in the newly renovated student section in The Swamp. That will make me happy! This event caused a pivotal shift in my mind set and ignited my passion for advocacy that would carry me to the end of my journey at UF.
This fiery spark of passion would empower me to join excellent professional and personal development organizations, such as Florida Leadership Academy and Heavener Leadership Challenge and Reitz Scholars. And during my last two years, I would channel my passion for advocacy as a founding member and officer of the Disability Ambassadors alongside my closest friends. Those experiences fortified me to lead, to innovate while pushing the boundaries of what had worked in the past. Out with the past!
Ten years from now, I will remember the sense of community and how UF provided a foundation for me to speak up about my passions, and then to cultivate those passions into actions which caused a chain reaction. Ironically, my physical speaking voice is my weakness, but through augmentative communication and eye-gaze technology (more on this on a later post), it has become my strength! I am humbled to hear that My Voice has been regarded as an advocate for disability inclusion and equity at the University of Florida. Whether on a world-wide podcast, or on the runways of New York, or collaborating with global brands, or giving a TEDxUF talk, or in a small workshop, My Voice has grown into a cherished leadership attribute that I trust even more because of the platform given to me at UF.
As I reflect upon UF’s history and past leaders, I pray that the leadership legacy I left was one of opportunity for those to come. My Voice would not be heard without the platform afforded me here at the Gator Nation. It symbolizes the pride for our community through which we share an unexplainable bond, made possible by respect for one another.
Until then, I will end on a personal quote, in hopes that you or someone you know will find encouragement in the words.