Thursday, May 31, 2012

Graduation Bliss

In all honesty, I've been dreading this post. It is the last one for Hannah's College Adventures. I will continue to blog but never again in Hannah's College Adventures. It's funny to think that this started as a boring Saturday afternoon because it's turned into something I could have never imagined way back then.  

I have graduated from Elmhurst College with a B.A. in Communication. I think I surprised everyone with how smooth everything went.  I had so much fun surprising you all. I was on a mission! I think when I joined Phi Mu and got involved in Student Government, everyone got the picture that I regarded myself as a normal student. In my eyes, I will always be a normal person...I'm just out to set the world on fire! I think the world got hit with the first flame on graduation day.

I woke up to a familiar sight which was Kim (she needs no introduction after four years) ready to feed me breakfast and get me ready. I put on a white and blue polka dotted dress. We put my graduation gown on. Kim had to take a minute to compose herself after we put my cap and gown on. For Kim, I think it was a moment that solidified our relationship. We had spent four years talking about this day and it was very much here. I hugged Kim good-bye and she went to grab seats for graduation. My parents had not seen me yet which I kind of liked. Let me explain. My family has to help me get dressed for any occasion including formal ones. While I don't particularly mind this, I did really want to wow them on graduation day. Roger, who works in Student Affairs and I had a pact since freshmen year. He would walk me to my graduation ceremony. 

Roger was outside of my residence hall at 8:25. We greeted each other with a long hug. We started the much anticipated walk and we talked about my journey at Elmhurst College. He hugged me good-bye.   I met Jessica and Gina who were my escorts. I met them in the chapel for the Baccalaureate which is the ceremony before the graduation ceremony.  Let me explain why I have escorts. When we left the chapel, the other students walked down stairs to the lawn. Obviously, I couldn't do that. So, when the school and I discussed this problem, the conclusion was that I had to go through the student union to get to the lawn. We all agreed that I should not walk alone. I had the idea of having two alumni come back to be my escorts. One of my escorts was Gina; she was my writing tutor for three years and now is a tremendous friend. The other escort was Jessica. This woman is Dr. Sullivan-Morgan's daughter and was my Orientation Student Leader. Dr. Sullivan-Morgan or Deatra as I call her after three years of friendship is a one of my personal heroes. She has always seen my potential. I had to honor Dr. Sullivan-Morgan and this way was the best way I could think of. Jessica has had always done extraordinary things for me like her mother. I thought long and hard about whom was best and these two women always went above and beyond for me. They were there to cue me when to leave the chapel; they fixed my stole, cords, and pins so I felt good all day. I was so grateful for them because on that day, I was so enamored with the pomp and circumstance (no pun intended), I couldn't focus on making the day go smoothly. They were able to think about the next step. I have to give kudos to Dean Tipton and Dean Sullivan. They did give me a private rehearsal the night before graduation leaving me calm and poised on that day. 

Emily, a friend of mine I made at orientation was sitting next to me at graduation. We were exchanging glances expressing the uncomfortable heat. When the row behind us got up to go, I turned my chair on. "Not yet" Emily said. I was a little excited. The marshals who were in my leadership honor society stood near me and then I got the go ahead. Dean Sullivan followed behind me because she was going to help me with my diploma. I slowly made my way up the ramp. After that, everything was a blur. I heard my name called: Hannah Marie Thompson. I drove a little on stage, I hugged Dean Tipton then I realize everyone is applauding. There is ongoing applause. I shake another hand then it's time to receive my diploma from President Ray. After I shake Dr. Ray's hand, I turn and face the audience. The applause escalates as I face the audience and it kept going until I was off the stage. I could not even fathom what had just happened. I was awestricken. I still haven't fully processed that moment. I need to take a moment to thank Elmhurst College for that incredible memory. It leaves me speechless and not many things have the extraordinary power to do that.  If that wasn't enough, I did get to lead the entire class through the honor guard. The honor guard is where all our professors line up and congratulate you as you walk through the two lines they form. I saw many professors that I respected and I was able to shake their hands.  

The next day was my graduation party! I had so many people I love in my house which is the greatest feeling ever. We did have a surprise guest. Katherine, my friend from Camp Courage came. My mom didn't know. My dad didn't know. I didn't know. It was the best surprise anybody could ever give me! It took a good twenty minutes to set in. My parents toasted me which was wonderful. I couldn't ask for more.

I am so grateful for all the people in my life. This blog is what it is because of you. I was just doing it for fun. It was you who made me realize the potential it had. Needless to say, I hope I have done the best job that I could with every post. This blog has served as a moral compass, inspired me to do more, and done multiple things that I cannot put into words. I've loved being on a journey with what was initially all the people back home, then a few Elmhurst College staff members, then an entire sorority, and now a huge community. You have supported me through the ups and downs of college life. 

I can't thank you enough for reading and always encouraging me. I'm very humbled that you would take time out of your day to hear what I have to say. I don't know what I did to deserve it. I really don't. The blog has been a constant rock throughout my college life. No matter how good or bad it got, I always could say "Well, it'll make a good blog story".

Next time I write to you I will have created a brand new blog. It will have a new title and of course, new stories! I will be in an apartment…just think of the stories! We will go on to a brand new chapter. I can't wait to start living it but for now, I am basking in graduation bliss.



Hannah Marie Thompson 

Elmhurst College '12 


Monday, April 30, 2012

Hello, Easter Seals!

I had the honor and privilege of speaking at the annual Easter Seals gala. It was magnificent! They made me feel like a princess! Here is the speech I gave:
Ladies and gentlemen, good evening! Isn’t this just amazing? It is celebrating the incredible power and determination of the human spirit and also the will of God. We are here to celebrate the miracles that happen at Easter Seals. Now, the miracles I am talking about are not miracles like Moses parting the Sea. No, I am talking about when a child gains enough balance to sit by themselves, when your child eats a cookie independently, or when your child says his or her first word. Those are our miracles.
The location of Easter Seals was miraculous for me.  In 2008, I entered my freshmen year of college. Low and behold, Easter Seals was fifteen minutes away. I immediately felt better in my choice to attend Elmhurst College. I have Cerebral Palsy and three different movement disorders. These disabilities are obstacles that affect me on a daily basis, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Needless to say, because of this I have been in therapy all my life. This fact did not change when I went away to college. I very much needed a place where I could exercise, and people could make sure my body was able to serve me through the challenges of living independently. I got so much more than that.
I felt even better going to Easter Seals when Mrs. Joanne Pygon walked into my life. For those of you who do not know this wonderful woman, Joanne is incredible. She is nurturing, smart, encouraging, and honestly, if I resemble Joanne when I am her age I will know that I am following in the right footsteps. Then in my sophomore year of college, I met Mrs. Celine Skertich.  This woman really impressed me. She understood what I needed right away and, she also became a friend and confidant quite quickly. We just had that instant connection that few are lucky to experience, and Joanne and I became extremely close too. When I look back on my collegiate years, I will regard these two women as therapists who turned into aunts. They have pushed me when needed, and comforted me when I needed it the most. Overall, Easter Seals has served as a respite from the demands of college life. This is highlighted when my DynaVox breaks or there is something not quite right with my wheelchair. They understand that my life cannot stop because of my equipment.
However, I find that the most impressive thing about Easter Seals is that we are not just an organization nor community, we are truly a family. I see that when I walk in and see those blessed pictures on the walls, or when one of our family members is grieving and we support them. I see it when Jim teases me about going to his rival high school. I see it when a baby is born and we all cannot wait to see that baby. Of course, that baby will receive only gross motor skill toys from us. I see our family right now, in all its glory. To me, tonight is a celebration of family. I want to thank each and every one of you for supporting my decision to attend college independently. It’s difficult some days, and Easter Seals makes it that much easier. I have made the decision to get an apartment in Elmhurst while I pursue researching graduate schools and, my motivational speaking career. I would be lying if I said Easter Seals was not a reason I am staying. I’m not quite ready to leave the arms of Joanne and Celine and frankly, I’m not sure if they’re ready to take their hands off me just yet. I want to thank Easter Seals for always being there for me, you really have made a difference in my life and I hope that I can give back and I can see even more miracles happen because of Easter Seals!
I interviewed at Easter Seals after I gave my speech. I am proud to say that I did get the Public Relations internship! Yes!! I will be starting in July. That will take me on so many adventures!
Most readers know that the next post will be my last for Hannah’s College Adventures. It will probably be very simple focusing on my feelings, the gratitude I have, and obviously, a tremendous thank you to my readers. You are why I blog. I can’t believe how far this blog and I have come and it is all thanks to you.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Where Will Faith Take me Next?

I've decided to devote this post to what is going on in my life. Some days, it seems like everything is going on and some days, I feel like life is standing still. I would like to emphasize that all the news is from December up until now.

So, back in December I found out that Northwestern removed my program. That turned my world upside down. Mom and Dad got involved and we met with two professors from Northwestern. These were informative meetings but Northwestern may not have what I am looking for unfortunately. I visited Purdue at Calumet and the same thing happened. These were all very kind people who gave me useful information and had some ideas but didn't have a solution. I have so many interests; religion, critical thinking, communication, marketing myself, and the list continues. While many people have respected me for that, right now, it is a pain. I don't know what I want to do with my life besides speaking-- of course. At this moment, I'm frustrated because I have always known what I want and gotten it. I have never not known what I want. Well, I do know that I do not want to move back home. That has been motivation.

Mom and Dad support my idea of getting an apartment in Elmhurst which is huge and I am so thankful for their support. They understand that my life is here. However, I would absolutely die if I did nothing for a year. So, I've been contacting multiple people. I have spoken to people at Elmhurst College who are more than willing to give me as many volunteer opportunities as possible which I am grateful for. The Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago is willing to let me speak more than twice a year. I haven't gotten the details but hopefully I will get to do more work with them. The most concrete and promising opportunity is a possible internship with Easter Seals. Easter Seals is an organization that provides services to people with disabilities. I actually go there for physical therapy so it would be a good fit. The internship would be in Public Relations which goes hand in hand with my communication major. If you have any ideas for me, tell me because I'm open to anything right now.

I have had some incredible opportunities come my way already. Easter Seals actually asked me to be their ambassador at their annual gala which is such a thrill. I get to wear a gown and speak. I will be a happy woman. Mom, Dad, and Nana are all coming so I am sure it will be a spectacular night. Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago and American Pediatrics Association have both asked me back to speak which is a true honor. Also, I am proud to say that I got accepted into Illinois State University. I deferred my admittance because I do want that mental security of knowing that if I don't get accepted to another graduate program, I can go there. However, it is two and a half hours away and I don't want to be that far away from my family.

On a less professional note, my friend Julie with Cystic Fibrosis is doing incredible. I go to her house once a week to watch The Bachelor. Her family has actually become a big part of my life. I have gone over for dinner a few times and vented to them about all this stuff. I can tell we are going to remain close. Also, I am definitely going to Camp Courage this summer. I am so excited!

Although senior year has not gone as planned, I am so grateful for the opportunities I have been given. It's definitely difficult when I don't know exactly what the future holds. I like to know exactly what is about to happen and the reality is I don't. I have to have faith that everything will work out for the best. I got this far on faith; let's see where it takes me next.


Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Courage to be Different

This month I had the absolute privilege of speaking at Alexian Brothers hospital. My 8th grade social worker thought of me when she was planning this "Victim to Victor" conference. It was one of my best speaking engagements yet. Here is the speech I gave:

I’m different. I have always been the different one, ‘The girl in the wheelchair”, or “The kid who cannot walk or talk.’ I grew up with these phrases surrounding me like flower petals surrounding their beautiful green stem. They were always used and helped create a sense of identity. Let me explain. Since people would call me the girl in the wheelchair, I would always ask myself, how can I be great at being the kid in the wheelchair? That is where courage came in. It was essential that I had courage to be different.

The courage to be different. Almost sounds like a paradox especially in our society. Women are encouraged to be super women, not because they necessarily want to but it is encouraged by society. Men are encouraged to be the best in their places of work, again, this may not be their personal goal, it may be society’s goal for them. Since society can put them in a box, it is easy to encourage them because others have had similar goals. With me, I had the privilege of designing my own goals, and I could define personal expectations, and others would just help me because they saw the courage in me. This has been a tremendous gift from God throughout my life. I’ll give you an example.

In high school, I decided to try out for the speech team. That’s right, the speech team. I will admit this was crazy. The girl who cannot talk tries out for speech team. Frankly, I loved it. I loved that I was crazy and courageous enough to even consider it. My courageousness got me on that speech team for the next three years. I placed at three tournaments. Needless to say, I defied expectations. I’m sure the teachers were talking about me. That was a good thing, because it gave me an identity other than just the girl in the wheelchair. Now, it was the girl in the wheelchair who was on speech team. You see what I did? I had an identity because of my physical appearance and then decided to link that identity to something else. I didn’t realize I was doing this at the time; I just wanted to be involved in high school.

When my involvement with the speech team was a success, I decided to volunteer at Onward House, which is a learning center on the south side of Chicago for underprivileged children. A bunch of high schoolers would take a bus to the city and help kids with their homework. It was a wonderful experience. So, now I was the kid in the wheelchair who was on the speech team and volunteered at Onward House. Pretty good. See what I was naturally doing? I’m creating other identities for myself besides the girl in the wheelchair. With that, the high school staff asked me to participate in the variety show. They saw me as somebody who could effectively contribute to the theater community. I had the courage to seek out more identities than just what my body presented me with.

At graduation, during the principal’s speech he stated that, some students were going to college against insurmountable odds. I did not know who he was talking about. My father explained it to me. He was talking about you. Here’s the thing; my parents never said things like, “you have insurmountable challenges”, or,”you have such a hard life”. It was always,” we will find a way” or, “you can do it”. So, when people identified me as the one with insurmountable odds, I didn’t get it. I have never looked at my disability as a challenge; I just looked at it as something to work with. I continued to have that mentality throughout college.

When I got to college, I was thrilled and filled with hope, excitement, and wonder. When I met someone, I put my best foot forward. I saw myself as independent and capable. I took those two attributes to the extreme. I manage eight to ten personal assistants per semester, went to classes on my own and had about 9 hours to myself each day. I absolutely loved it. Surprisingly, these tasks did not require as much courage as going through sorority recruitment. Let’s back up a bit before I tell you about my journey through sorority recruitment.

Even though high school presented itself with many opportunities and good times, the social aspect was very difficult. My fellow students were so scared to be friends with someone so different. They did not understand. I don’t think they were mean spirited, I think they were afraid of associating themselves with the kid who was different. They didn’t understand how much fun being different could be. So, I got ignored all the time. I remember at senior night which was the party after graduation, I had nobody to spend time with. I ended up calling my parents and going home. I tried so hard to teach them about disabilities and they just never caught on, so I moved on.

During the transition process, I made a very conscientious choice to go to a school where the population of students with disabilities was low. Asking about the reason behind it is a fair question. I was so used to and comfortable with my identity as the girl in the wheelchair that I wanted to hold on to that throughout this incredible change in my life.

When I arrived at orientation at Elmhurst College, it was as if the storm stopped and I found the rainbow. They literally could not wait to get to know me. They wanted to hang out, text me, it was incredible. They understood that there was much more to me than the wheelchair. Everyone wanted to help, it astonished me. I had made some friends but I could see that we were naturally drifting apart. One girl wanted to play sports; the other girl committed herself to a dance team, and so on. Over the summer, I had thought of joining a sorority. So, I signed up for recruitment.

I rushed two sororities. For the purposes of this presentation, I will not share their names because I’m not about pointing fingers. So, I am rushing Alpha Alpha and Beta Beta. The first night goes great. However, the second night I don’t get invited back to Beta Beta. I thought “That’s fine; I’ll just pour my heart and soul into Alpha Alpha”. Unfortunately, they did not want me either. Obviously, I was heartbroken. It was then that I started second guessing everything. I thought Elmhurst College was a mistake. I thought it was high school all over again. My mother really had to push me through that time. As we all know, time helps us heal.

This story has a happy ending. A few months later, a sorority named Phi Mu came to campus. Women from headquarters who had been Phi Mu in other areas of the country wanted to start a chapter on campus. I knew I had to try. My parents were appropriately hesitant and claimed that the sorority world was not ready for me. I knew this was a possibility; however I do not want to live with regrets. I went to the recruitment events and I absolutely loved these women. I have to mention that these women were alumna of Phi Mu so they were a bit older and could see my potential as a member of Phi Mu. Also, the staff at Elmhurst College had gotten to know me and they understood that I could commit to an organization like this. Due to those women believing in me and Phi Mu truly being the right fit, I have been a member of this organization for four years. I won the sisterhood award my first year and recently got rewarded for having one of the top ten highest GPA’s in my chapter. It will be extremely difficult to leave Phi Mu this May, however, I plan on joining an alumni chapter after I graduate. This took so much courage but it worked. I don’t know why people choose to believe and support me, I am humbled by this.

I am not just in a sorority on campus. I have been involved in student government, Catholic Students Association, three honor societies including, Omicron Delta Kappa for leadership, Gamma Sigma Alpha, the Greek academic national honor society, and Lambda Pi Eta, the honor society for communication students. As anyone would tell you, I am at most of the college’s events. I attend everything from academic lectures about LGBT issues to the annual homecoming dance. Let’s go back to me being the girl in the wheelchair. Well, if someone described the girl in the wheelchair, it would be difficult because I do so much. So, I can happily report that to my peers that I am just Hannah. This is a wonderful feeling and a great accomplishment in an abstract way. Most, if not all people are known by their names, all my life it’s been split in the middle, fifty fifty, I was fighting a battle with the human eye, I won. I got people to see with their minds. I created an identity outside of the wheelchair.

I have fought this battle for years. My efforts have paid off in various ways in college but this week I took a leap of faith and it was rewarded. I love Elmhurst College. It is the greatest place to learn and the people of Elmhurst College are absolutely phenomenal. So, I was crazy enough to go into the president’s office and ask for a job. I’m not joking. I’m proud to say that he was enthusiastic about it and informed me that he would make some calls and see what he could do. So, even though I cannot feed myself dinner, I can go in to the president’s office and ask for a job.

I have been discussing my high school and college career throughout this speech. It’s time to get more personal. I need help feeding myself, going to the restroom, brushing my hair, washing my face, and anything that is purely a physical task. I have eight to ten personal care attendants that come in and out while I live independently in a residence hall. They come when I need them which is when I wake-up, have my meals, and go to bed. Before I moved out and lived independently, I had to learn how to direct my care. I learned that at a very special place.

Every summer, I go to a place called Camp Courage. It is a camp for people with disabilities. That was my first experience of directing my personal care, a crucial element to being independent. My parents did not train the counselors like they did with respite workers at home or my one on one assistant at school. The camp counselors did have general training but I was used to my parents training anyone that worked with me. I will admit that I was a little hesitant. I was used to having my own caregiver that was fully trained. Well, ten minutes after my parents left, I had made two new friends and loved my counselors. During the first year, I swam with a counselor in the pool without my parents even being close by. I rode horses with people who barely knew me or my body. It was an exhilarating feeling! I had not experienced anything of this nature without my family. I felt so free. Camp Courage made me truly realize that I could be independent. Today, I have honed the skill of directing my care balancing, courtesy and kindness with authority.

The courage to be different is scary however; it can be a lifelong thrill. Notice how I said, lifelong thrill, not the thrill of a lifetime. In my 21 years, I have chosen to embrace my identity, as different as it may be. I do not want to blend in, I want to stand out. I mean, in every single group picture, people can point me out within two seconds. I will admit when the girl in the wheelchair rolled into Jeanie Walsh’s office, she had some days where she wanted to be normal. Now, I can say that, the woman in the wheelchair wants to stand out in as many ways as possible.

I was presented with flowers and received a standing ovation after I completed my speech. I felt like Miss America!

I cannot wait to do another speech.