Below, Erin Breedlove reflects on her experiences in college as student with disabilities, and her aspirations to become a tenure-track professor. See Erin’s full biography at the end. You can find her on Twitter @erinrbreedlove or via email.
Passion, Perseverance, and Power
I just graduated from college. As in, a little over a month ago. Those four-and-a-half years taught me so much more than I could have ever imagined. You see, I was the girl who prided herself on missing only one day of class this semester for the first time ever. Rest assured that the reason that this is monumental will be understood later. You see, I was the girl who didn’t believe in wearing sweatpants or pajamas to class because I thought of it as a sign of disrespect. I did have my dress-down days where I’d wear yoga pants and jewelry and makeup, but how could any student sit in a lecture that is prepared by someone who has authority over them and who has spent probably triple the amount of time in preparation than in actual lecture to ensure that you learn accurate, up-to-date information, live with themselves after sitting in the front row of that setting donning pajama pants with a Scooby Doo print?
But you see, I was also the girl who used the clothes that she wore and the things that she said to try to mask an aspect of my physical appearance with which I’m almost always in competition. I have cerebral palsy, and though it is a mild case, as opposed to the images with which you associate the condition, I still have more issues with the fact that sometimes I have to cut back and take the “B” on the paper instead of the “A” because I’m simply tired, and my time management techniques often look different than most. There’s no doubt that I’m very motivated by academia, and I’m excited to see how I’ll use the tools that I’ve learned and developed to ensure success in the future. This is why my GPA is a 3.0 instead of a 4.0. All things considered, I’m really proud of myself.
In my last semester of college, I took my hardest course in the psychology program. It was Behavioral Neuroscience. The teacher just happened to be my adviser, who is literally the best professor I’ve ever had. It was a grueling course. Because of my cerebral palsy, my proprioception, that is, the relationship between your body and space, is slightly off, and in addition, my depth perception deficits prevent me from being able to see objects three dimensionally. Learning models of the brain was the hardest aspect of this course for me, and I had never shed as many tears over a course as I did in this one. I was frustrated. Before the semester had begun, I was able to chat with my adviser about some techniques that would help compensate without fundamentally altering the nature of the course, as they say. Ultimately, I was able to be really successful in the course, with appropriate diligence and dedication.
The class re-ignited a passion for me, to be honest. About a year ago, I began exploring what a career in academia would look like. After seeing and being intimated by the requirements and prestige of the field and of those three letters that all in academia desire, I was scared away. When I discovered that hard work and supportive professors and a passion that is unspeakable work together, there are endless possibilities; I started asking myself questions. Can you see yourself doing this for life? What would you research? Both of those answers are yes, and to research, since my area of interest is rehabilitation counseling, I will devote my time to different topics that affect college students with disabilities.
The truth is, though, I’m scared. I know that the opportunity to get a PhD will always be there, tenure track is always the rage, and universities will always be a necessity, but how many times do you see professors with disabilities on the tenure track at R1 institutions? I’ll break the mold, if you insist, but when does the grit come into value? Will my students respect me? Will my department chair understand that my syllabus might be spread out so that I can manage my grading and fairness to my students on top of managing something that causes stiff joints when it rains?
People need us; students need us, and society as a whole needs us. While I realize there are many “what ifs” to any situation, it’s real. Academia has made it tough on those of us who have passion, despite issues beyond our control, to display it in an effective manner. I came from a small, public liberal arts university in the Southeast, and I never saw a faculty member with a visible disability in my four-and-a-half year tenure as a student. Fear held aside, I’m ready to take hold. As Mahatma Gandhi once said, we must “be the change [we] wish to see in the world.”
Ready or not, tenure track professorship! Here I come!
About Erin Breedlove: I am a recent graduate with a Bachelor of Science in psychology from a small, public liberal arts university in the South. I have been a tireless advocate for students with disabilities, and I speak as an individual with a visible disability. Currently, my passion lies in academic research that will better the lives of people with mobility oriented disabilities. To act on the passion, I hope to pursue graduate studies in rehabilitation counseling to contribute to the improvement of quality of life for people like myself.
Growing up, my stuffed animals had the same level of education as myself, and I have always loved school, the nurturing environment provided by relationships with teachers and professors, and the fact that in school, everyone always has at least one thing in common: you believe in the power of education. Additionally, I hope to help to broaden the horizons of current and future students in higher education by expanding the number of applicants with visible disabilities to the tenure track positions in university settings, emphasizing the culture experience that will derive from it for all individuals in the learning community.