It’s move-in week for undergraduates in Pittsburgh this week, which reminded me that 11 years ago this week, I was moving into my freshman dorm at Carnegie Mellon University. That seems like another lifetime ago now, but was a real milestone in my life, so I wanted to talk about it this week for my SMA Awareness Month post.
When I was applying to colleges, I had pretty much made the decision that I was going to stay in Pittsburgh. I had never been to camp, or lived away from home, and I know that I wanted to be near to my parents. While this may seem like a decision that a lot of people make, for me, it was a logistical decision, rather than an emotional one. I knew that if I got sick, or something happened to my wheelchair, I needed to have my parents available as backup. When I toured both Pitt and CMU the summer before my senior year of high school, I realized that the smaller size and more “bubble-like” feel of CMU’s campus would make it much easier to navigate for me than Pitt, whose campus is spread out all over Oakland (and up some pretty steep hills).
Even though I knew I wanted to stay in Pittsburgh, I also knew I didn’t want to live at home. I really wanted to have a real college experience, and I knew that it wouldn’t be the same if I lived at home. Especially at CMU, where almost every freshman lives on campus. Before move-in day, I met with the director of the Disability Resource Office and various other staff members, picked out a dorm that would work best for me, and worked out other necessary accommodations. CMU was actually great in trying to make things as smooth as possible for me. But until move-in day itself, I didn’t realize what a change living away from home would really be for me.
Not only had I never traveled without my parents, I had also never had anyone but my parents help me shower, get dressed, go to the bathroom – anything. The reality of this set in a few hours into my move in, and the complete fear set in as well. I had aides scheduled to show up later that evening for their first shift, but hadn’t realized that I had never really had to “train” anyone to help me. I’m not a big crier (believe me – anyone I know will vouch for this), but I started crying and basically couldn’t stop. After an hour or two of this, we made the plan that my mom would come back later that night to help me train the new aides, and walk them through my routine and needs. She ended up coming back for the next few days, and that was such a huge help. In hindsight, it would have been smart to have the aides come to my house before the move-in to train them, but we just didn’t think of it!
After those first few weeks, things definitely went much more smoothly, but going to college with a disability is never quite “normal.” I survived freshman year on very little sleep and very high stress levels (this is normal), but this led to me getting pneumonia at the end of the spring semester, had to go home, and ended uptaking incompletes in my classes since lung infections can be serious for me! That actually ended up helping me get a summer research internship, though, so it almost ended up being a good thing!
I joined a sorority, a co-ed service fraternity, and the school newspaper. As much as I might sound like a typical student, I also had to call my mom too many times to count when one of my aides called off and the agency couldn’t find a replacement in time. The aides were also there for scheduled shifts at specific times – I couldn’t decide to be spontaneous and stay out at the library or at dinner for too long, because that would have meant losing my chance to go to the bathroom!
I loved living on campus, and can’t imagine doing it any other way – I was often at the library until past midnight, and don’t know how I would have done that if my parents had to drive me to and from campus each day. While it wasn’t always the easiest, I learned so much, and would be happy to talk to anyone else with a disability starting college!