When I first found and researched Sterling College, I understood the demographics well enough – chances were, there wouldn’t be any other students needing to walk around with a cane, most students could hike for ages without needing a break, and most students could do just about anything without needing to have braces on hand for fear of a joint randomly popping out of place. I knew I was going to struggle with some classes and tasks more than others, and I knew it wasn’t going to be easy. That said, experiential learning is something I’m passionate about. I know it’s what works best for me, even if it’s a little harder for me to accomplish than most people. Still, while I was excited about coming here and starting this new journey, I was also terrified. Would I have support here? Would I be able to do what I needed to do? Would I be able to get the accommodations I needed? Would I be able to do this?
For the first few days I was here for A Sense of Place, those thoughts continued to race through my mind. I knew these people all seemed kind and caring, but how far would their generosity and understanding go? I had never heard anything about students with physical disabilities here, and to my knowledge it seemed like maybe if there had been any, there had only been very few. Would anyone here even know how to accommodate a disabled person?
The first answer came in the form of trail work near the top of Jay Peak. Hiking up a trail intended for downhill skiing is difficult even for an able-bodied person, so one could imagine how much of a hell it is for a disabled person. I was mortified the moment the usual pain turned so much more intense with each step up the bare path – I didn’t want to slow anyone else down and I couldn’t bear the embarrassment of asking to stop- until the instructor leading us looked back at me and said, “Do you need to take a break for a minute?”
Of course I said no. I meant yes, I meant – please yes I feel like I could collapse any minute – but being the stubborn person I am, I said no. I’m fine. I can keep going. He gave me a look, then said, “Let’s take a break.” And that was the moment I realized – maybe I’m going to be ok. When I couldn’t even be true to myself and my own needs out of a desire to try to be “normal,” somebody was there to remind me that it’s ok, that everyone has their own pace to set, even if it’s not to par with the average. Thanks to that person and the others who stayed behind the rest of the group with me, I was able to climb all the way up to our destination. If it wasn’t for them, I think I would’ve had to give up. I never would have gotten to see the dramatic views of far off mountains, the lichens that grew heavy on the alpine trees, the ferns and fungi.
Though I had the choice to either stay and take on the less challenging (yet equally impactful, from what I heard) campus version of Expedition, I chose after that to take on the behemoth that was the entirety of Expedition 1. I knew it would be a challenge, but I wanted the experience. I wanted to try. I may not have been able to complete it like everyone else, but it was thanks to my classmates who saw me struggling and were willing to work together to carry the pack that I couldn’t that I was able to summit three of Vermont’s 3000 ft. mountains.
Being a physically disabled person at Sterling isn’t easy. It’s challenging, it’s painful – yet there’s no place I would rather be. I’ve already learned so much about my own needs and how to listen to my own body thanks to the people here who have been so patient and supportive, not to mention all of the important and impactful skills gained from the classes I’ve taken here so far. My fears, as it turns out, were unfounded. Instead of being an outsider here, instead of being the one left behind, even I have a place here. Sometimes I may not be able to do what most others can do here, sometimes I may need a little extra help, and that’s ok. I can take my time, listen to my needs, and most of all, I can thrive here. It may physically hurt a bit more, it may still be emotionally taxing – that’s true – but in the end, this place, these people, everything I’ve learned and everything I still have yet to learn all has been well worth it.