Take Life’s Challenges and ROLL with it!

On April 29th I had the honor of returning to my Alma Mater- Ursinus College- to address the seniors at the multicultural student banquet. This is an annual event to send the seniors off as they embark on the next chapter in life. How nostalgic and what a joy for me to be present and have the opportunity to address the audience of students, parents, and professors. Here’s what I had to say.

Thank you…It is such an honor to be here this afternoon! It is always a joy to be back on campus. Greetings to President Fong, Mrs. Patton, Reverend and Mrs. Rice, Dr. Kohn, Staff, Faculty, Students, and most importantly students of the 2014 graduating class and parents!

I want to start with a question that I want you to be thinking of throughout my time up here. What has been your biggest challenge and how did you overcome that challenge? Or maybe you’re currently in the midst of that challenge and overcoming it? Remember- not all challenges are the same and should not be compared to someone else’s; we all go through tough times- big or small. For me, prior to being hit and run over by a car 4 and a half years ago, I was proud to have overcome three challenges: The first was graduating Ursinus as a Biology major which I am sure many of you know, comes with a rigorous course load. [How many Biology majors do we have in the house? So you can relate!] Having been a straight A student all my life, recieving my first D in chemistry and another D in one of my many biology courses was devastating! I thought for sure, I had to switch majors; at the rate I was going, I would never see commencement day! But I hung in there—I took that Biology course over, and came out with a B in Organic Chemistry Lab! Although, I did drop Calculus because I was failing early in the semester and let my mind convince me it was for the better. I even contemplated switching majors but Biology was what I loved so I fought through the challenging course load with the help and support of Rev. Rice, a great advisor and a great professor- thank you Drs. Lyzack and Kohn. The second challenge I faced was going home to Massachusetts after a very trying freshman year and my grandmother passing away that summer. Then my senior year, receiving news that my other grandmother passed away the week before the big championship swim meet. This meant that I would have to travel home to Massachusetts for her funeral in the midst of the biggest meet of the season, which was the last time I would swim for Ursinus! How was I going to stay focused and lead the team as co-captain with this on my mind? And the third challenge was living in one of the most expensive cities in the US- Washington, DC- on a $1000 stipend each month, plus food stamps as an Americorps member for a full service year with the National AIDS Fund! Those were my biggest challenges and I attribute being able to overcome those trials as preparation for what would be the biggest—which I will expound upon shortly.  

I imagine that some of you may be able to relate to parts of the challenges I just presented. Aside from completing four years at Ursinus, I would imagine the biggest challenge you are faced with currently is the question of- What am I going to do AFTER graduation? You may have no idea what you will be doing after college, while others will be heading to graduate school, medical school or their dream job and then there are others who will be taking a year off to travel in an attempt to figure it all out. If this is something you are still grappling with, be assured that it’s ok to not have it all figured out by May 16 and even if you think you have it figured out, it can change in a moments time. After I graduated I had no idea what was next for me—I was back and forth between applying to Physician Assistant School and Master’s in Public Health programs, and I even pondered Teach for America and joining the Peace Corps. So after taking on a job doing software testing the summer after graduation, thanks to an Ursinus alum, things started to come together. I was presented with the opportunity of a life time to live in Santiago, Chile for 3 months. I always wanted to travel abroad but couldn’t fit it in my four years at Ursinus due to my major and the swim season was so long. In these 3 months I was able to figure out my next steps. And that would be to serve as an Americorps member for one year in Washington, DC, conducting HIV testing, counseling and outreach education. Now this was where I wanted to be- in the HIV field! Subsequently, I was offered my first full time, salaried job in HIV clinical trials which I have been doing now for 5 years. Notice a theme here? I did not set out after graduation with a life plan drafted, I certainly didn’t sit back and expect things to happen either, but each step came together piece by piece.

I often reflect back on my first weeks at Ursinus in what was then call the Bridge Program (now the Krigler Institute). We are surely going to miss Mrs. Patton here at Ursinus. The bonds and relationships built with my fellow students, professors and those in the Office of Multicultural Services I am forever grateful for and they have lasted well beyond my Ursinus years. These relationships span different class years as well. Just last month I had dinner in DC with three fellow Ursinus alums, one of which is my best friend from Ursinus and also lives in DC but the other two were in different bridge classes as us. How great to spend an hour hearing about the amazing things we all were doing, post Ursinus– one of us a social worker and personal trainer; the other working in vaccine research with her PhD; and the other recently quit her job to become full time blogger and speaker on natural hair! The common bond between us all was not only being Ursinus alums and women but doing what we truly aspired to be doing in life and acknowledging this did not come about overnight but several years post Ursinus. It’s not too soon to welcome you to the alumni club and I encourage everyone to stay connected with the alumni office as they have events each year in cities like Boston, Philly, and DC. There’s one coming up next month in DC that I will be attending and it’s a great way to connect with alum who are living and working in your area! Each summer there is an annual get together for alums down at the Jersey Shore too!

Thinking back, my last night at Ursinus wasn’t the most eventful– I remember going to the senior party right here in wismer lower for an hour then heading back to my room to finish a paper for my independent study I did with Reverend Rice. I then fell asleep and woke up the next morning for graduation with a ton of missed calls and text messages from my fellow class mates. That being how I spent my last night at Ursinus, you can imagine how shocked my parents were when they came back to my dorm room after graduation and NOTHING was packed! Speaking of which, I want to take a moment to acknowledge and say congratulations to the parents/guardians! I know I could not have made it without my parents’ support throughout my four years at Ursinus. And while my parents couldn’t quite grasp the extent of my work load as a Biology major which resulted in many late nights in Phfaler, Thomas and the library, or the 12-15 hours a week spent in the pool and gym, plus extracurricular activities like SUN, ALMA, and Phi Alpha Psi, they still supported me as best they could all the way from Massachusetts. Now this support was not always a visit for the weekend, or a home cooked meal due to the distance, but a phone call or email to check-in or a package. These gestures meant a lot and kept me going especially after that first D my freshman year. It’s funny because the messages from my mom still continue 8 years after graduation telling me to stay hydrated, get my sleep, and take my vitamins– I call them moms messages of love. So parents we thank you!
Now back to the biggest challenge I would have to overcome– receiving with the daunting news from my doctors four years ago that I may never walk again. How would I LIVE like THAT and be independent and active as I was before? Was that even possible? Would I now need to live with my parents forever? I often reflect back on my days in the hospital when I thought I would have to live in sweat pants the rest of my life! But as you can see, I quickly got back into my dress clothes and heels. I had so many misconceptions about living post-injury but the opportunities, personal growth, and witnessing of Gods amazing ways, helped to build my own faith and keep me positive. I was motivated to get back out there and live life to as close to how I did before. Sure some things are different now but to think that I can still do any and everything I want, but in an adapted way, meaning from a seated position, is fine by me. I have my life and for that I am beyond grateful. And to add, the doctors were not exactly right…6 months after I was injured I started standing and walking again.

Many people since my injury ask me, How have you come this far with such a big smile and such positivity? And I tell them my FAITH…don’t get me wrong I have my down days when I’m not smiling and that’s ok but my good days far outweigh those bad days. I love the scripture that reads in I Peter 1:7 These trials will show that your faith is genuine. It is being tested as fire tests and purifies gold. I never would have imagined that I would still be able to swim, snow ski, water ski, and certainly not drive again, after my injury. Next on the list is scuba diving and a possible Olympic bid for swimming. Before my injury I was aiming to compete in my first triathlon….today, I’m training for my first sprint triathlon in August!  I was determined that my injury would not stop me from living the way I did before and still accomplish the goals I set for myself. Sometimes God has a different plan for us that is totally out of line from what we planned. But know this, the mind is so powerful and positive thoughts make a big difference…if you don’t believe in your own aspirations and overcoming challenges, others around you won’t either!

I have learned that it is so important to not let others deter you from your aspirations and passion in life! But the key is having patience in achieving and finding what it is you are meant to do! While I pray no one has to experience a tragic event, to find their passion, it took me 8 years post-Ursinus and a life changing event for me to realize mine! I always wanted to make a difference but never imagined that God would have me do it in this circumstance. The past years have introduced me to so many others living with a spinal cord injury like myself which has turned me into a peer mentor at the local rehab hospital. This has not only allowed me to be encouraged by others but also empower others to live their best life no matter the circumstance.  Now I aspire to go back to school for my Masters in SW and focus on grief and trauma counseling. There it is…all of that to discover my true purpose in life.

So with that i encourage you soon to be Ursinus graduates to be patient and have faith in finding your passion and when you do, run with it and inspire others along the way. And when you hit a bump in the road, or have a setback, allow yourself to grieve, process, accept and adjust to the challenge then get on with it. No matter the number of times we hear it, the Serenity Prayer says it best: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

I was talking with my massage therapist the other day and she complimented me on the beauty of my progress and the way I have embraced the fact that yes what happened to me is horrible, but I won essentially! And I never thought of it that way…even as the competitive athlete I am, that really stuck with me– I won and did not let this circumstance defeat me. On my most trying days I recite the well-known verse from Philippians 4:13- For I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength. That verse kept me going particularly after the first time I fell out of my chair crossing the street. That was the first time I really felt defeated with this new injury I was dealing with. It was about four months after my injury and was the first time my dad let me go out of the house without him accompanying me. Even though it was just 2 blocks from my apt to get to the post office, I was proud to venture out on my own, in my new wheels. And after making it back home after my little spill, I didn’t let that keep me from going out again the next time…but then it happened twice more! And you know what I told myself- this is the learning curve. I’m in a new “vehicle” and this must be what comes with learning how to manipulate this new contraption. I chuckle now but in all three moments I was in tears.

As I wrap up this afternoon, I encourage you to turn your challenges into your passion; maybe that’s the reason you chose to go to medical or nursing school b/c someone close to you has passed away from an illness or is currently living with an illness; or maybe you didn’t have much of a family growing up or your family has seen some really tough times and that is why you are on your way to get your masters in social work or counseling; or maybe you chose to become a teacher due to struggles through grade/middle/high school and if it wasn’t for that one teacher that showed interest in your success, you don’t know how you would have made it this far. There are so many different ways challenges can be turned vehemently into the difference you are going to make in this world. Challenges are inevitable; don’t let them stop you from living and succeeding in life and reaching those goals/finding your passion. As was in my case, challenges pushed me towards exactly what it was I am meant to be doing in life when I was uncertain before. So I encourage you to find your passion and run with it…or as I like to say, ROLL with it!

I want to close with a quote that former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden said often- Things turn out best for people who make the best of the way things turn out. So class of 2014, you have made it this far! And I wish you all the best in whatever it is you take on!

Category: Blogs · Tags:

Comments are closed.