Returning to College


When I was shot, I had been attending the College of the Desert, a two-year course in which I was on track to graduate at the top of my class.  When it comes to education I have always valued getting good grades highly and my plans had been to be accepted into a National Honor Society before transferring to a four-year college.  However, these plans were flipped on their head as soon as the bullet hit.  Once an A-class student, I was now paralyzed from the neck down and had lost all ability to write.  As if that wasn’t hard enough, my brain injury had also caused me to forget the shapes of each letter, meaning that I had to learn how to read from scratch.  The part of my brain that had been injured was in charge of retaining and manipulating information, making the very concept of learning and education a near impossibility to me. 

For six months, a speech therapist would come into my hospital room and repeat three words to me.  Blue, bed, sock.  Blue, bed, sock.  Blue, bed, sock.  They asked me to repeat them back, but my brain simply would not allow me to do so.  No matter how hard I tried, I could not retain the information, even for a few seconds.

This back-to-school journey first started when my mother took me along to adaptive PE classes at a local community college.  This was essentially a physical education class for people who had disabilities like mine, combining exercise and therapy.  This was my ticket back into the classroom environment.  However, in order to qualify for such a class, I also had to work with a college counselor and train on how to use adaptive technology, including voice-to-text.  It took me a year of being in this adaptive PE class to realize that I actually did need a PE qualification to qualify for a transfer to a four-year university.  Fortunately for me, adaptive PE counted towards this, which was a huge boost to me.

Eventually, after overcoming my upper body paralysis, I was able to begin my journey back into education, starting with learning how to construct letters and numbers.  For the next two and a half years, I worked tirelessly towards this goal in the hope that I could finally return to school and reach my goals.  The bullet had robbed me of so much time, but I refused to let it take away my grand aspirations.

For the foreseeable future, I continued to do therapy sessions at a facility called the Timpany Center, which was designed to rehabilitate those with disabilities and was run by student interns.  Even though I had dropped out of school after my injury, it felt encouraging to know that I had never really left the academic environment.  One of the students who helped to run the centre was called Colby and he suggested that I should take online classes in advertising, as he had noticed the substantial growth in my social media following.  I took his advice and enrolled in the class, while noticing that another of my four-year university requirements was also available online, so I registered for that too.

By the time the quarter ended, I had received A grades in both classes and had overcome whatever learning anxiety I had felt at first.  My brain was rewiring itself back into the academic routine and I was adapting even better than I had expected.  At this point, I contacted my counsellor and asked what other classes I would need in order to qualify for the four-year university, to which she replied that I would need critical thinking in groups, geology, statistics, and intercultural communications.

This came as a major blow to me.  The same part of my brain that struggled to retain and manipulate information was also in charge of mathematics.  For the past three years, therapists had been trying to teach me basic things like counting money, adding, subtracting, and more.  If I struggled with these simple tasks, how would I ever be able to grasp something like statistics?  After voicing my concerns, my counsellor recommended a professor who I readily contacted and explained my situation.  His reply eased my worries, ensuring me that each exam had a three-day time limit and that everything would be okay.

On my first day, I was put into a group with four straight-A students and were aiming to attend colleges such as Berkeley and Stanford.  Not only did we do our day-to-day work in these groups, but we also did our exams as a five-person team too.  Thanks to my group and quality professor, I ended statistics with a 96% to go along with my 97% in critical thinking.  Not bad for what I had assumed to be my hardest subjects.

Thanks to a woeful stint at De Anza College in my past, my near-perfect GPA from my days at the College of the Desert plummeted to a 2.0.  I simply could not afford to have a bad quarter if I hoped to achieve my dreams.  I ended up signing an academic renewal, ensuring that my lowest quarter grades were removed from my transcript, before getting straight A’s upon my return in the new quarter, dragging my GPA up to 3.34.  This was essential for any hopes of transferring to a four-year university.

By the end of the summer of 2020, I worked closely with my counsellor in order to transfer to a university, taking online courses to avoid the day-to-day troubles of getting around campus.  I also needed a flexible schedule in order to make various therapy appointments, as well as being able to take classes at my own pace.  One day, in conversation with my counsellor, she suggested that she should contact Arizona State University to ask about financial aid.  This got me thinking more about Arizona State and I asked them to give me a call sometime.  The very next day, they did just that.  We immediately started to work out a custom education plan for my communication degree and I received an admissions packet to kickstart the process.  With a GPA of 3.3, Arizona claimed there would be no problem with me getting in. With that said, after I applied, and weeks of waiting anxiously, I just got the notification that I was accepted to ASU where I will finish my bachelors degree and then pursue my masters.



nolan mcdonnell

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