Fifteen UAA students with disabilities were recognized Tuesday for their academic achievements in a small ceremony in the Consortium Library. They are charter members of a group that aims to create role models and advocates for students with disabilities.
"This is the beginning. We're starting from scratch," said Karen Andrews, UAA's director of Disability Support Services, who helped launch the local chapter of Delta Alpha Pi International Honor Society.
"Our goal is to erase, eradicate, eliminate stereotypes."
Zach Christy, a history and pre-law major in his third year, was among those who received certificates and compliments from administrators during the brief event. He said the moment took on more significance for him as it unfolded.
"It didn't really hit me until I got my certificate that this is something that I should actually be very proud of," Christy said. "As a kid who couldn't read until he was 8, it's a pretty big deal."
Christy recalled childhood struggles before he was diagnosed with dyslexia, a learning disability that affects language skills. He said social isolation compounded the problem.
"It was incredibly discouraging, until I figured out that I actually had a reason for all of that," Christy said.
Now with an eye toward graduate school, Christy adapts with a commitment to time spent studying, sometimes by listening to audio files of lectures. He hopes to remain active in the honor society, which he called a "community of solidarity" for students with very different circumstances.
That's the outcome Andrews is hoping for. She said many capable students with disabilities might come to college from miserable experiences in school. Others have trouble disclosing a traumatic brain injury, a mental illness or a physical limitation that might otherwise be invisible.
Andrews said Disability Support Services at UAA assists about 450 students each year. But she said statistics indicate there are likely twice as many disabled students at UAA than have registered for help. The example set by Delta Alpha Pi's first members, she hopes, might help reach them.
"That's why this honor society was birthed, to get rid of those stigmas so that students will come forth to get the accommodations they need so they can have a level playing field to be successful," she said.
Accounting major Karen Denton was one of the students who pledged to advance the rights of students with disabilities after hosts lit ceremonial candles. She said she felt overwhelmed.
"It's amazing to be doing something first and something that's important," Denton said.
Multiple sclerosis ended Denton's military career as a helicopter mechanic after she returned from a Kuwait deployment with the Alaska National Guard in 2013, she said. After her diagnosis in 2015, she decided she needed more skills.
"It took away the job I love," she said.
Denton makes a point of talking to each new instructor when she starts a class, she said. She explains that she sometimes slurs her words or sits crooked in her seat, and that it can be difficult to write for long periods of time. When nerves spasm on the left side of her face, it can lead to pain and blurry vision.
"If I can't see, I can't read. And if I can't read, there ain't no studying going on," she said.
Denton, who was once removed from a non-UAA class because a teacher mistook her for being intoxicated, is now waiting on callbacks for job interviews as she nears graduation. She spoke highly of the help she has received at UAA, including audio files of textbooks and the use of a special room that limits sensory stimulation.
She hopes her experience will matter to future students in similar circumstances.
"It doesn't really matter how individualized your issues may be, these people are here to help. And you absolutely can do this, especially at UAA," she said.
As members socialized over hors d'oeuvres, several said the ceremony and recognition stirred emotions.
Clinton Boyer said confronting post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety has meant studying every day of the week. It's a long way from how he used to feel about school.
"I never felt like I belonged in school and never really expected college," said Boyer, adding that he has a 4.0 grade-point average.
Stacy Hawkins, 53, had been out of school for 34 years before enrolling at UAA. She's coping with PTSD as well as liver complications, but she's also making progress in her accounting studies while she works full time. As she received her certificate, she carried a framed photograph of her two sons, one who died in 2001 and the other who died in 2015.
"I know they'd be proud of me," Hawkins said.
Andrews said Delta Alpha Pi, founded in 2004 at East Stroudsburg University in Pennsylvania, has 120 chapters nationwide. This is its first in Alaska. Soon, the group will select its leaders and consider its goals.
"This is student driven. They're going to decide what their objectives are and what they want to focus on," she said.
Journalism and communications major Katherine Irwin said she looked forward to representing other deaf people and, hopefully, improving lives. With help from sign-language interpreter Brenna Povelite, Irwin said she has long confronted misconceptions about her abilities, even in her own family.
"My whole life there's been a lot of stigma around being deaf. People think that I can't do things, and I can," Irwin said.
"Of course I can."