College and Muscular Dystrophy: Picking a College

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I’ve already written about the importance of education and I do think that getting a college or technical education is extremely important for anybody. But proceeding through higher education also has additional benefits for students with disabilities. College not only becomes about learning math and science, but learning independence and other skills that have lifelong value.

This week I’ll be focusing on the college experience and how it challenged and rewarded me. For any kid with muscular dystrophy or another disability, college can be a big stepping stone and incredible life experience. It was for me.

Picking a college

I remember getting a flood of college brochures starting my junior year of high school. Most of them went right into the trash. Some stuck out, however. Sometimes the campus looked amazing and other times the kids in the pictures looked like they were having fun. Sometimes the school just had a reputable name.

I spent some time at the library looking at college guides and using the computers to filter down to the type of school I wanted to go to. I recall wanting a smaller school with a contained campus. I would trade warm weather for reputation, but both would be nice. At this point, my physical needs had nothing to do with my decision. I picked out eight schools and sent in applications. Here’s my list and what my reasoning was:

  • Harvard: Purely for reputation and I’d owned a sweatshirt from there.
  • MIT: I loved math and thought I wanted to study statistics.
  • University of Chicago: Great reputation and very close to where I grew up.
  • Stanford: Great reputation and warm weather.
  • Miami University in Ohio: Nice campus, far enough, but not too far, and some extended family worked there.
  • University of Wisconsin: Backup school.
  • University of Houston: Backup and warm.
  • University of Missouri – Rolla: I have no idea. I think they had an OK math program.

I got my letters and found out I got into all of them except Harvard.  I knew that if money was no object I would go to MIT, Chicago, or Stanford. But we still had to wait on the financial aid packages to see if any of those were even a possibility.  In the meantime I entertained countless calls from fraternities at MIT and Rolla. These got really annoying and I think I decided MIT wasn’t the place for me after the tenth call. These guys could have made great telemarketers if not brilliant scientists.

The financial aid letters came and the costs became do-able thanks to grants and loans. My family amounted to about 1/3 of the total cost of tuition, room & board. So I narrowed my list down to two places: University of Chicago and Stanford.

I had visited Chicago and it was very much a “city” school. Although the campus was collected into its own area, the buildings were on drivable streets and there were lots of stairs. It seemed like there would be lots of walking required. And what about winter? Sure I could drive a car around, but who wants to deal with parking and walking?

Stanford posed the opposite but similar problem. The campus was isolated and self-contained but HUGE. I didn’t actually visit the campus, so I was going on pictures and descriptions. All I heard was how people biked around campus and cars weren’t allowed in the interior areas. Okay so how was I going to get to-and-from classes here?

So for several weeks I could not decide what to do. I was leaning heavily towards the University of Chicago because it was closer, seemed less intimidating, and was more “known” since I had been there. But then one day I got home from school and my mom said, “I think you should go to Stanford.” I was shocked! She, of all people, seemed to want me to stay at home and live there forever. But that day someone from the Stanford Disability Resource Center had called. Turned out he was blind and had a lot of the same worries I did about getting around at college. He also mentioned that students with various disabilities can use golf carts to get around the campus.

Golf carts?!!?!?

Okay so there was nothing like that at the University of Chicago. Can you imagine driving a golf cart around on city streets? Or in winter?

So I let this new information sink in and finally decided that Stanford would be the winner. I sent in my confirmation letter and haven’t had a single regret since.

One thing I liked about my decision process was that I didn’t focus on my physical needs until the end. Although my needs ended up affecting my final decision, I felt like I wasn’t limiting myself to one place or the other simply because it would have been physically easier for me to get around. So I don’t look back and think, “Wow, I screwed myself by focusing so much on my disability when deciding!” Of course my needs at the time were somewhat minimal, so for others this could be a more important factor.

So my tips for choosing colleges boil down to this:

  1. Remember you can go (or at least try to get into) anywhere, so don’t limit yourself.
  2. Apply to a bunch of schools so you have a nice selection, especially if you don’t expect to get into all of them.
  3. Worry about your physical needs when you think you should. Don’t limit yourself if you don’t have to. You can make things work in just about anywhere (as one of my future posts will describe). You also might not get into all the places you apply, so no sense worrying about details until you know where you can actually go.
  4. Do your research. When I picked my schools there was not a lot of info on the internet. Now you can talk to other students and get information easily.
  5. If you have concerns, talk to someone at the school about them.

Remember, if your high school grades weren’t great, you can still pursue higher education, and I still recommend it. There are technical schools, community colleges, and other training programs that can give you the education you need to get a great job and live a great life. Not everyone has to go to a four-year college to do great things.

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