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By Ian Lacson

When I graduated from college last year, I knew that I deserved my degree. It took me a while longer to graduate because, prior to attending university, I suffered a serious injury that left me handicapped, mostly in the physical sense, but cognitively as well. For this reason, during my first year, I was encouraged to take my time and to not tackle challenges that I did not think I could handle. As a whole, I was pleased with how I spent my last semesters. There was only one problem: I had been rejected from graduate school, big time, for something I could not control.

I had a rocky start in college because I was enrolled in a rather demanding program that I was clearly not suited for. It was in the realm of science, and was composed of college students who seemed to have it all together. They knew how to balance rigorous schoolwork and an active social life, knew what classes to take and what professors to avoid. Most importantly, they had not experienced head trauma prior to their freshman year. Despite the initial hurdles, eventually I was able to get the hang of college life. I took more classes and earned high marks. I was careful about mentioning my injury to others to avoid being treated with pity rather than some understanding, and because I wanted to be seen as a regular student. I was open about my disability with a few professors—if the course material applied to my circumstances—but did not reveal too much for the instructor and students to hear. In the first place, I enrolled in a college because I wanted to prove to myself and to others that I could succeed and graduate from a four-year college despite being at an obvious disadvantage.

I shined in most of my classes and enjoyed learning, but my worst grades were, ironically, in courses required for my program. It was not that I was uninterested in what I was majoring in. I just had to work much harder than everybody else—only to constantly fall short more often the other, “less cognitively challenged,” individuals.

I was thrilled when, toward my last two years in college, I got my act together and pulled my grades up in the program, even with those unflattering grades following me around like a toxic shadow.  I eventually saw myself as a college senior facing commencement, and like everybody else in the program, I had graduate school on my mind. I knew that all those years of textbook collecting, stress, hard work and tears would have been useless if I did not end up with a career in the area of study I had chosen. Furthermore, I knew those below-average grades of the past would rear their ugly heads. However, I thought the graduate program I set my sights on would acknowledge the fact that a differently-abled undergraduate such as myself performed surprisingly well academically. (I also figured I would explain the rest to graduate admissions later.) I requested an application form for the graduate program weeks later, then made the decision to ask a professor from our undergraduate program for a letter of recommendation. This professor knew about my diagnosis (because I shared a summary of my experiences in her class) and I did fairly well under her instruction.  

I was absolutely devastated when the professor did not even care enough to take the application booklet I handed her at her office. Instead, she expressed her concerns about me enrolling in a graduate program for her area of study. My dreams were instantly crushed as the professor deemed that I did not have the quick thinking that professionals in the field need in order to be a skilled clinician. In my head, it was as if one the faculty member had just labeled my forehead—and persona—with a huge stamp that read “SLOW PROCESSOR.” It was hard to hold back the tears and maintain my composure after I left the office.

Females statistically dominated the program I was in, but I’d heard of male classmates’ acceptance to the school’s graduate program. One of them, who received relatively lower marks than the rest of the students in the program, was admitted before my final year, surprising a number of us who did not think he could gain admission to such a tough program.  Knowing this only discouraged me. Surely, had I been a man instead of a disabled woman, I would have had the chance to continue my studies if it were based on grades. They did not even let me try.

A blatant disadvantage of being a handicapped student is being in the minority. I did not get the opportunity to chat with one of the few other students, but in seeing them around campus, I wondered if they wished they had enrolled in a college that specifically catered to their needs, as well.

Every day since commencement, I try to make peace with myself, to let go of the bitterness towards an instructor’s ignorance and to gain an understanding of why they would deny me recommendation for continuing the path I poured so much into as an undergraduate. They may have saved me a bunch of money in graduate applications and other fees, but their judgment, primarily based on my flaws rather than my strengths, will always make me feel inadequate. At the moment, I intend to enter the workforce in a related field (but away from biological sciences), with possible plans to attend another graduate program in the distant future. One thing’s for certain though, with any luck, my undergraduate professors in the major will never see or hear from me again.

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