Making the shift from high school to college is a big change, for anyone. The idea of college and all its possibilities can be exhilarating, but it can also be incredibly daunting and unsettling. Unlike high school, where you may have strict guidance from your parents and teachers, college has more or less none of this guidance. Your adviser will offer guidance and suggestions on which courses to take and your professors will help guide you, especially at a college like Grinnell, where your professors know who you are and care about how you do in class. However, the key difference is that the responsibility falls on your shoulders—your professors will only care about your status in a class if you care. The daunting aspect of college is that there is ultimately no one that will push you to succeed as—your success is entirely up to you. If you chose to ignore your work, you will fail. But if you choose to work your hardest, putting every ounce of energy you have into your work, you will succeed and prosper.
College can be a terrifying reality at first, and this fear is only increased when you're in a wheelchair. The fact of the matter is you're on your own. I know that fear because I once had it when I first began looking at possible college. My condition, compared to some, is fairly minimal. I can't walk and thus I use a power chair to get around. I'm fairly self-sufficient, and I honestly hate asking people for help, but sometimes it's necessary. That was the scary reality—I need help and ultimately I would have to hire some form of aides to help me, something I had never done before and had no experience with. I was just in high school and the mere thought of hiring aides and being an employer was intimidating.
I remember sitting in my high school English class one day, and because many of us had already applied to colleges, my teacher asked the class what each of us looked for in a college. My classmates slowly spoke up, answering how they looked at what majors or classes were offered, what the professors were like, what the social life was like, if the college had any fraternities or sororities. What I found stunning was that all of these concerns of my classmates weren't of uppermost importance to me. Obviously, what majors are offered and what the professors (or even student-to-professor ratio) are like are important, but being in a wheelchair, I had a lot of other concerns that frankly overshadowed the concerns of my classmates. So, I spoke up, and gave a very different list of what I was looking for when visiting a college. I looked at the sidewalks. What were they like? Were they smooth and flat or jagged and crumbling? I looked at the doors to academic buildings, administration buildings, and the residence halls. Did they have handicapped accessible doors? Where was the handicapped button? Was it in plain view or in some obscure location? What was the student community and administration like? Were they receptive to disability concerns? These are the types of questions I had—ones that were very different from my classmates.
These are the types of questions I wondered about when I visited a college. I would take the campus tour to look at the condition of the sidewalks, how easily I could maneuver throughout the campus and its buildings, and how the tour guide and admission personnel reacted to me being there. When I signed up for a campus tour, I told the college I was in a wheelchair, but that's all I did. I let them handle the rest as a test, for how the college handled this accommodation would ultimately reflect how they would possibly handle any other situation I might have if I were to attend that college. Some colleges failed, and failed miserably. They didn't seem to have a clue of my condition and ultimately the poor tour guide had to rapidly change her usual tour to make sure I could get everywhere. I wasn’t even able to get into some buildings on these tours because of steps or steep declines. I took these colleges off my list of possible colleges because these types of issues and overall disorganization would most likely occur when I would be a student. However, there were many colleges that excelled, and Grinnell was one of them.
From the moment I arrived in the town of Grinnell, I fell in love with it. I come from the Quad Cities, Iowa, a decently-sized set of towns along the Mississippi River. In comparison, Grinnell is a lot smaller. Some people may see this as a downfall, for it lacks the abundance of attractions and activities that a big city may host. However, I personally love the small-town feel. The Quad Cities is an odd place because it is a sprawling set of cities, but the population is not big enough to support a good public transportation system. With no public transit, I had to constantly rely on my friends or family to drive me everywhere. Because of that, I more or less had no independence. But in Grinnell, the exact opposite is true. The downtown of Grinnell is near the College and is convenient and easy to get to. If I need something from the store, I can go to the local store, where everyone is incredibly helpful and more than willing to help find anything I need. The local restaurants are also accessible. The key aspect I love about the town of Grinnell is that unlike back home, I have full independence. I don't have to ask anyone to drive me anywhere or help me get somewhere. I can just do what I feel like doing, at any time, and THAT feeling of independence is one that never gets old.
With the town so accessible and friendly, I had high hopes and expectations for Grinnell College, and those expectations were exceeded. When I came to Grinnell, I merely told them that I was in a wheelchair, just as I had done with all the other colleges, and nothing else. I wanted to see how they would accommodate me. From the moment I arrived and met with people in the admission office, I immediately felt like I was wanted—something I didn't necessarily feel at other institutions. The truth is, in some respects, I was wanted. If Grinnell could convince me to attend, I would be the first student wheelchair user since the 90s. For Grinnell, an institution which recognized its campus as inaccessible in many places, having a wheelchair user could be a crucial component in actively remodeling the campus to be accessible and inviting to all individuals, regardless of physical mobility. I could be the catalyst that could help launch a wave of renovations aimed at making the campus more accessible.
This feeling of being wanted was unique to Grinnell. It was truly the only institution where I felt like I could make a difference. I wasn't just another student or merely a number; I was an individual, and a key one. This attention to me as an individual transferred over to the campus tour. Grinnell's tour was impressive, and that's probably an understatement. When it came time for the campus tour, I had my own tour. The tour guide was excellent, paying special attention to walking at a steady pace and talking loud enough for me to hear him. Moreover, if he had to adjust his route so it was accessible, it wasn’t noticeable. Everything was smooth and effortless, which is exactly what I was looking for.
In Grinnell, I had a strong feeling of a home away from home. I felt that I was wanted and that any input I had would be considered useful and actually help make a difference. But more importantly, I felt that Grinnell would adhere to my needs. I felt that Grinnell was the right fit for me—and I couldn’t have been more right.