Strive for the extraordinary. This was the topic of my college admissions essays and the mentality that took me on a trans-Atlantic journey to study in the United States. As a 12-year-old schoolgirl I was asked where I dreamed of attending university, and I shyly replied with the name of the nearest big city to my hometown in England. The smiling adult was suitably impressed, but I remember thinking to myself — imagine their response if they knew the truth. I want to attend university in California.
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when or where the dream started, but this was the moment when I decided for myself to turn this dream into a plan. I was probably inspired in the early days by “High School Musical” or some other Disney Channel fantasy filled with cheerleaders, dancing on the tables during lunch break, and teenagers wearing their own clothes instead of a school uniform. But on reflection, there was something more about California that called out to me. I pictured a way of life where my disability would cease to be a barrier due to the warmer climate and relative accessibility of the environment compared to the ancient architecture of the U.K. I fantasized about rolling along smooth, wide boulevards in my powered wheelchair and basking in the independence that a college campus would afford me. I was enchanted by the idea of being different for some reason other than my disability, relishing in the prospect of small talk about my accent and growing up in a quaint British town. As I felt increasingly isolated from my school friends because of my physical limitations, I longed for a taste of acceptance and believed America held the answer.
I thrive on having a goal and I knew what I had to do to put my plans into action. Learning was something I excelled at and getting good grades was the only option. My anxieties about fitting in among my peers faded because I had my sights set somewhere beyond high school, and I accepted not being able to go out and socialize in the same way as everyone else because I was using that time to get where I wanted more than anything to be.
As I developed the confidence to share my ambitions, I learned that it’s okay for people not to believe in you. In part, their laughter at my plans energized me because I knew that I was about to prove them all wrong. At the precise moment my parents were told I would not survive beyond the age of six, my life became all about defying the odds. One by one, I worked through the list of components that would make studying abroad possible: academic achievement, impressive extracurriculars, generous financial aid, access to robust healthcare, complex travel logistics for my powered wheelchair, funding for 24/7 caregivers to enable me to pursue an education outside of my home country … the list goes on. I had never spent more than a weekend away from my parents, so the greatest hurdle of all was trusting each other that I could do this independently.
The desire to prove myself was ingrained in me from an early age, in part as a character trait and in part as a manifestation of my internalized ableism. For my life to have value, nothing I ever did could be mediocre. Studying in the U.S. was the ultimate symbol of overcoming my disability, and the fact that I got into Stanford was the icing on the cake.
With graduation only a few days away, I can confidently say that my time at Stanford has been extraordinary. But as is often the case, it has been so in the most unexpected of ways.
Academically, not only have I majored in a field that I never once considered prior to my sophomore year, but I have grown in my appreciation of knowledge for knowledge’s sake rather than focusing on education as primarily a means to an end. I gradually learned that fulfillment would come from enrolling in classes that I actually wanted to take — not those I felt I ought to — and I ultimately carved out a learning experience that has been truly authentic to my passions. Most unexpectedly of all, I found myself in Oxford courtesy of BOSP and the COVID-19 pandemic, and it was there that I first began to believe in myself as a real scholar, discovering an academic niche that went on to shape the latter half of my Stanford experience.
As for the people I have been lucky enough to meet along the way, I would have to agree with the majority of students when they say that the people here are the best thing about Stanford. I arrived as a freshman craving social connection, but quickly realized that forming relationships was an evolving process that required me to step out of my comfort zone and tap into a vulnerability that I had been so averse to all my life. It wasn’t just going to happen for me — even in America. Despite this yearning for social bonds, I spent years convincing myself that I would be fine either way because I had goals that I was intent on achieving, but I now recognize wholeheartedly that when everything else is falling apart, my social ties and points of meaningful connection are what keep me afloat. I have found friendships that teach me new things about myself every day, and I am eternally grateful for their acceptance of me in all my strength and fragility. They have shown me that I bring value as a friend too, helping me drown out the voice that — echoed by a society that sees people with disabilities as disabled first and human only second — insists otherwise.
Finally, I came to Stanford seeking an escape from my disabled self, but in reality I have experienced the exact opposite. In some ways the everyday challenges of college life have brought my disability into sharper focus than ever before, and in certain moments I have found myself just longing for the ability to walk so that I would not have to spend another day facing institutional inaccessibility and — you guessed it — a lack of wheelchair accessible transport. What these moments have shown me, however, is that I can be more honest with myself about my experience with disability, and I hope that my writing today is a testament to that. Finding connection and belonging in the disability community at Stanford has encouraged me not to run from but to embrace this part of my identity, and I have learned to use advocacy for myself and others as a source of power. Despite my best intentions, Stanford has helped me grow into my disability, but I will leave this campus as a more complete version of myself because of it.
Graduation has come around far too quickly, and I have never been good at saying goodbye. I could write a book about the incredible experiences and opportunities that have defined my Stanford experience in so many unique and wonderful ways, but that’s not what this column is about. At The Daily, writing about disability has been my ‘thing,’ so, as a final farewell, I wanted to write candidly about how I have experienced Stanford — from beginning to end — through the lens of my disability. It certainly wasn’t perfect, but looking back I hardly recognize my freshman self for all the best reasons.
The page has turned and the next chapter is dawning — onto sunny LA because this Cali girl isn’t going anywhere! — but as I leave this campus behind for now, I am most grateful to Stanford for showing me the true meaning of extraordinary.