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7 years after being paralyzed, a woman graduated from college

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

It's graduation season on college campuses, and it is Mother's Day weekend. And here is a story about a mother who overcame extraordinary challenges to finally get her degree. Liz Schlemmer with WUNC reports.

LIZ SCHLEMMER, BYLINE: Gabrielle Vanderkuyl has waited seven years for this day.

(SOUNDBITE OF LONDON PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF ELGAR'S "POMP AND CIRCUMSTANCE")

SCHLEMMER: Her college career was disrupted by an unfortunate spinal cord injury. So she's using a power wheelchair. But that hasn't stopped Gabrielle from finishing college.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Gabrielle Vanderkuyl.

(CHEERING)

SCHLEMMER: She rolls across the stage to accept her diploma and back to the row where her family is cheering her on. At age 29, this mother now has a bachelor's degree in nursing. Despite her disability, she says her personal struggles aren't unique.

GABRIELLE VANDERKUYL: I mean, it's just hard to go back to school in general, right? Like, life gets to you.

SCHLEMMER: And it really got to Gabrielle in 2016. She was just one semester away from finishing nursing school when she went home for winter break. Her brother attacked her. She landed in the ICU, then spent a year in rehab. It put her life on pause while her classmates graduated.

G VANDERKUYL: Not being able to finish school in my last semester - I'm like, great. That was so not fair.

SCHLEMMER: Gabrielle is a quadriplegic. It wouldn't be possible for her to go back to school without her husband, Eric Vanderkuyl. He went with her to class and helped her take notes.

ERIC VANDERKUYL: It's fun. I like it. I like being in class with her and just supporting her in a way that, you know, most people aren't able to.

SCHLEMMER: Eric is a registered nurse. Now he's Gabrielle's full-time caregiver and partner in school and in life. Her family is also what motivated her to return to school, especially after giving birth to her daughter three years ago.

G VANDERKUYL: It was a real healing journey, seeing her grow and just wanting to make her proud and make myself proud.

SCHLEMMER: Their daughter spent months in the NICU. They brought her home just as the pandemic hit. And up late at night with the baby, Gabrielle started to think about nursing school.

G VANDERKUYL: You know, that's when you get your moments of inspiration, is in chaos, right? Like, you get so much clarity of what you want to do when you're in the midst of not being able to do it.

SCHLEMMER: Her husband, Eric, says he was on board right away.

E VANDERKUYL: With Gabby having almost finished the program. Going back feels like something in life is fair. There's always hardship, but there are those moments where you can see fairness. You can see triumph.

SCHLEMMER: Now with her degree, Gabrielle wants to be a case manager to help long-term care patients move forward in their own lives. For NPR News, I'm Liz Schlemmer in Greensboro, N.C.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILL FRISELL'S "FARMER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Liz Schlemmer
Liz Schlemmer is St. Louis Public Radio’s 2016 summer news intern. She is a master’s student in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. While at UNC, Schlemmer has reported with Carolina Connection radio and North Carolina Health News. As an Indiana native, she is excited to be back in the Midwest and working with her first NPR member station.