Personal story shapes graduate student who will speak March 2 at TEDxPSU

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- She has just five minutes to share her message but Janelle Applequist knows much can happen in a lot less time, so she’s excited about the opportunity to address attendees at the fourth annual TEDxPSU Conference at Penn State.

Applequist, who earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the College of Communications, needs only to complete her dissertation to earn her Ph.D. She’s been a member of the campus community for eight years.

Her time at the University and some serious health experiences have helped shape her personally and professionally -- and she plans to talk about that during her portion of the Sunday, March 2, conference in Schwab Auditorium, on the University Park campus.

“I encourage my students to learn by listening to others and I know if they do that they can do amazing things,” Applequist said. “Learning to listen to other people is really important.”

Conference attendees would be wise to heed the advice Applequist gives her students when she steps to the podium for her three-minute speech.

It took much less than five minutes -- just seconds really -- for Applequist, then a 13-year-old junior high school cheerleader, to fall off a trampoline during a summer workout and sustain a serious head injury. A slow recovery from what was thought to be a concussion revealed something even more serious.

The fall literally had shaken her brain, revealing and worsening a preexisting Chiari malformation -- a structural defect in the cerebellum when the brain stem does not fit into its intended place in the skull.

“When it happened, I had all kinds of problems and I guess I just expected it to eventually go back to normal. It never did,” Applequist said. Symptoms included an inability to eat or even swallow. There were constant headaches and a limit on physical activity.

Her surgery was at age 14. That came after a first day of school, just days after the fall, when Applequist, the student council president, stood in front of her peers in a neck brace and braces -- because the fall had required some dental adjustments as well -- to give a welcome speech to incoming seventh graders.

“You can picture that, right?” said Applequist, who could no longer participate on the cheerleading team because of the injury. Eventually friends started referring to her as “Aspen,” the manufacturer of the neck brace whose label was quite visible on the device. In addition, almost everyone knew who she was. “Especially the teachers. Everybody knew I could not bump my head, so everybody was always watching out for me,” she said.

Still, Applequist thrived at Seneca Valley High School, about 32 miles north of Pittsburgh. She was always a strong student, but the head injury, complications and surgery made school harder. She still got As, but it required more effort than before. She was home-schooled for half a year while enduring numerous spinal taps as part of her treatment and only attended half-days of school as a high school senior.

“I had to learn how to learn again,” she said. “I think I was less optimistic about the future at that time. It’s not really the kind of condition they can fix. They can’t really prop your cerebellum up in your head. Maybe someday there’ll be new technology.”

Surgeries have left Applequist, 27, without approximately six inches of bone at the base of her skull in the back of her head. As a result, certain physical activities remain off limits and she has to be careful about anything she does -- even a sneeze. Headaches are fairly constant, but she has completed pain management programs to deal with them. Plus, when she does have children it can only be by Cesarean section, in order to prevent her from pushing and enduring the accompanying pressure.

She’s not about to complain, though.

“It was scary at times, for me and my entire family, but I cannot stress enough how much my mom, dad and two older brothers taught me during the experience,” she said. “They were a daily example of how to be there for someone, to provide a support system. And that’s something I carry into the classroom with me. I want my students to know they have a person they can come to, should they ever feel overwhelmed, pressured or scared. That’s important to me.”

Family members believe Applequist has supported them just as much in return, and they know how she connects with her students. She has two older brothers, Chad and Bret. Bret earned his degree in elementary education from Penn State and teaches third grade in the Northern Lebanon School District. He has learned a couple of key things from his sister.

“Perseverence and toughness. That’s Janelle,” he said. “She’s not one to complain and while other poeple might worry about her health, she finds ways to be a part of what happens rather than simply not attempting it. Plus, she’s genuine and passionate. That sincerity helps her connect with students becuase they know she cares. As I reflect back on what she’s been through, I think I’m learning more from her now than before.”

Applequist has grown from an undergraduate student, getting motivated in a COMM 410 International Mass Communications class taught by C. Michael Elavsky, an associate professor in the Department of Film-Video and Media Studies, to teaching that very same course herself as a graduate student.

“Although it’s unusual for a student to earn an undergraduate degree and then two graduate degrees at the same institution, it’s not unheard of," said Marie Hardin. "When an exceptional student, such as Janelle, is interested in continuing with us, we’ll look at the case and decide whether it’s in the best interest of everyone involved. Janelle’s interdisciplinary work, her fit with our faculty’s research and her strong academic record made the decision an easy one.

“She is one of the most balanced, collegial and accomplished graduate students I’ve seen come through our graduate program," Hardin said. "She brings energy and a deep level of care to any task she encounters. She’s goal-driven, but people-oriented. That’s a rare combination.”

That people-oriented approach shows in Applequist’s love of teaching. In addition, she has focused her health care-related research on people and qualitative measures, the words that doctors and patients use with each other, and how patients report what they feel. In a health-care world concerned mostly with hard numbers and quantitative research, her approach is slightly different -- but no less important, and potentially impactful.

“I don’t think it’s so much overcoming adversity as dealing with what you have to deal with,” she said. “The experience 100 percent led me to where I am, to the researcher I am and to the chance to teach, which I love to do.”

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Last Updated March 04, 2014