This is the third post in my week long series about my college experience with muscular dystrophy. I encourage you to check out the first two parts: “Picking a College” and “Getting Started” if you haven’t already.
The first challenge I faced in my college experience came the very first week of school when a professor on his bike came flying into the crosswalk, on the wrong side of the street, and I hit him as I was pulling away from the stop sign. Welcome to college! I was on my way to my first cello lesson, which I missed. This turned out to be one of my most stressful experiences while in college. Glad I got it over with the first week! I still have a lingering memory of that philosophy professor (I never did take a course in that department) walking his bike back home and the front wheel rolling, but wavering all over the place.
When it came to dealing with muscular dystrophy at college I had a few challenges to overcome, however.
Freshman year the laundry room was downstairs in the building next door to the dorm. There was no elevator. So even though I could still climb stairs it was a huge pain to lug my bursting laundry bag down and then back up the stairs. Not to mention it was creepy down there, especially at night. It wasn’t until mid year when I realized that there was a loading dock down there too, which meant a driveway ramp! So of course from then on I would drive my golf cart down the ramp and leave it there while I’d load and unload my laundry. Problem solved.
Another minor issue was that my dorm did not have an elevator. So I had to climb stairs to get up to visit friends or go to dorm government meetings whenever they were up there. Although this was good exercise, it wasn’t that fun going up to the third floor when I needed to, like when my neighbor down the hall would blast, “What is Love” at full volume while entertaining a lady friend.
Later years I knew exactly what I wanted in a dorm room and you could plead your case to the housing office who did a special “lottery” at the time for disabled students. I actually had scoped out a lot of the residences and wrote up a report of each of the places and why it would be good/bad for me. I submitted my preferred list and my sophomore year I landed a perfect room in one of the more popular residences. I had a huge room overlooking a nice BBQ area and a very close parking space. The laundry was immediately next door to me, the bathroom was huge, and we had an open kitchen complete with drink dispensers and a pantry we could raid whenever we wanted to.
My junior and senior year I wasn’t in quite as nice of a place but it still turned out great because the people I lived with have become lifelong friends. Those years I had to request a special accessible parking space be painted in the nearby lot. Additionally they modified the bathroom a little so I could easily get in and out of the shower. I was still walking but had some trouble stepping over the threshold in the shower stall.
When it came to classes, I ran into very few issues but when I did, things were easily adjusted. If a course room was not in an accessible building or had stairs to the entrance, I could request that the room get moved. If a field trip sounded like it would be too much walking or climbing, I would make arrangements for an alternate field trip. One time I had to make up a field trip to a water treatment facility with a friend of mine and we were supposed to climb up this metal ladder to the top of one of the holding tanks. The option was “skip it” or have my friend piggy-back me up the ladder, which would have been interesting. I voted to “skip it” and it wasn’t a problem.
Another challenge I faced was what to do with my stuff during the summer break. I knew I couldn’t pack and move all my stuff myself so the first couple years my dad flew out and helped me. Then we’d drive the car back to Wisconsin. The first summer I stored my stuff at a friend of my grandma’s. Then when I came to pick it up the following fall, the woman left the key out for us but forgot to deactivate her alarm. So my dad, my uncle, and I were in the midst of pulling plastic tubs out of the house when the police arrived! Thankfully I’d had my name and address on the tubs (I really don’t know why I did this the previous summer!) so the police let us be. Nevertheless it was pretty funny.
In hindsight I do think that my physical issues affected my decision to do a few things, however. I didn’t go exploring in the city of San Francisco very often. The hills and bad parking made it difficult for me to walk around. I have had a chance to go back a few times and even with my wheelchair, it’s crazy! I also think that I skipped class a little too often. Even though I could get up from the seats in the auditoriums, it sometimes felt like too much effort and even a little bit embarrassing. Looking back I might still have skipped classes but not quite as much.
Also, when it came time for graduation I was very apprehensive about even going in the first place. The big graduation was in the stadium and I thought that meant a lot of walking. As it turned out, I could ride my golf cart in and even sit in it during the ceremony, which I did. So when my mom and sister came in for the ceremony we decorated it and I got to cruise around the stadium track in it and hang out with my friends underneath the cart roof. Stanford graduation is very informal, if not insane, so it worked out perfectly. I did, however, skip the department graduation which was later in the day. Even though I was nervous about walking across the stage, I honestly just wanted to be done with the pomp and circumstance and enjoy my last few days at school. So I hit up a few of my friends’ ceremonies and that was well worth it.
What I learned from these challenges at school was this: There’s always a way to do something. If something seems like it can’t be changed, it often can if you just do a little exploring. If you request what you need, usually you will get it. Once you get comfortable with the process of asking for help, it becomes second nature. Not only did I realize that I could ask for what I needed, but I learned that I could rely on friends and family when necessary. Not everything has to be done by myself.
Continuing on that note, tomorrow I will talk about some of the resources I used while at college – both financial and physical – to help me get through.