Maria Walls knew she would encounter some difficult times when she enrolled at Penn State in 2013. She didn’t know exactly what they would be. She didn’t know when and where they would occur. But the Arlington, Virginia, resident and rehabilitation and human services (RHS) major in the College of Education did know why problems would ensue.
Walls’ day-to-day life is impaired by two disabilities -- gastroparesis, a paralysis of the stomach tract and intestines, and Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS), an autonomous nervous disorder as well as a circulatory condition.
On a campus as large as University Park, Walls knew those conditions would catch up with her and slow her down. She said exhaustion and fatigue are constants; weakness, dizziness and nausea also often plague her.
“So it was hard to walk around on such a big campus and get acclimated. The environment here is very fast-paced. Just adjusting to days where I’m awake for 18 hours and hardly getting any sleep, it was a lot to kind of navigate my way through."
-- Maria Walls, rehabilitation and human services major in the College of Education at Penn State
"So it was hard to walk around on such a big campus and get acclimated," Walls said. "The environment here is very fast-paced. Just adjusting to days where I’m awake for 18 hours and hardly getting any sleep, it was a lot to kind of navigate my way through.’’
Because she knew she wasn’t alone -- even though one’s inner feelings to that end can be prevalent -- she navigated her way to the Office of Disability Services (ODS) and floated the idea of a student organization called WINGS.
The term is not an acronym. The mantra of the club, she told ODS, would be to soar over disabilities. “I said, ‘you know what, I hear you guys don’t have a program like this and I think there’s a need for it at this university. I would like to start it and I need your help.’
“I kind of asserted lot of authority there but it worked out,’’ she said.
WINGS, officially named a student organization in 2014, is up to nearly 35 members.
“There were a lot of struggles that I was going through and throughout all that I felt like I wished I had some people who understood what I was going through,’’ Walls said. “People who I could form relationships with and draw support from and give them my support as well.’
“It pretty much came from me recognizing that there are a lot of students at the school who have disabilities but they just don’t know where to find each other.’’
Wendy Coduti, an assistant professor within RHS, said that rates of students with disabilities attending college have increased each year. “Which is a great thing as it reflects increased access to education as well as increased diversity on campuses,’’ she said.
“For students with disabilities, there may also be a concern around stigma and ‘what will people think if they find out I have a disability?’ WINGS helps students with disabilities connect and find peers who have gone through similar situations,’’ Coduti said.
“I think WINGS will help other students with disabilities realize that there are many other students here at Penn State who also have a disability -- both visible and invisible -- and WINGS is a great way for students to connect.’’
Keith Jervis, director of the Office of Disability Services at Penn State, said about 1,600 students with disabilities have registered at University Park and another 1,600 students among the commonwealth campuses. That amounts to 3.5 percent of the student population, he said, a figure that is in line with what Penn State’s Big Ten partners report.
“There is a level of comfort in speaking with a fellow student who is having a shared experience that can’t be replicated in our office,’’ Jervis said. “We hope that through these connections (in WINGS) students will be informed of our services; in particular, our initiatives with corporate partners to increase employment opportunities for individuals with disabilities.’’
It took nearly three years of medical testing but Walls finally was diagnosed during her junior year of high school. Accepting it was no brief time frame, either.
“Honestly I think it’s probably something I still struggle with but it took me about a year and a half to really understand and see myself as a person with a disability and really realize there were changes that needed to be made in order for me to move forward,’’ Walls said.
“I think once I was able to do that then I really took control of what I needed to do to live a life with a disability. But I think the personal adjustment process and acceptance was very, very difficult for me.’’
She said her mother was -- and still is -- her rock, and that “a big extended family’’ also offered care whenever needed; she deemed herself fortunate.
Walls wanted others to feel equally fortunate. She’s encountered WINGS members who have multiple sclerosis, intellectual disabilities, those with depression and anxiety and even some with POTS, which is her affliction.
“Privacy is a big thing for us so disclosure of a disability is not necessary,’’ she said. “It’s a club that is designed to where you get out of it as much as you put into it. Anybody can be as involved or uninvolved as they like. One of the most beneficial parts of the club is just getting students with disabilities to meet one another,’’ she said.
Walls received cooperation from Coduti and Jason Gines, assistant professor in counselor education and RHS. “My RHS professors have really inspired the fire inside of me and the passion to pursue this career,’’ Walls said. “They just make it seem so attainable and make it seem like such a wonderful thing and something that I want to be a part of.’’
Two years remain before Walls becomes a part of the Class of 2017 job market. Though starting off as a criminology major, once she took the little steps to form WINGS, she simultaneously was taking bigger steps toward her RHS career.
“I realized that working with people with disabilities is my passion, it’s what I want to do, it’s what feels right to me,’’ she said. “All I know is I want to be working directly with people who have disabilities because I think that’s where I thrive.’’
Walls has left a trail of impressions through her WINGS efforts thus far.
“Maria through her actions demonstrates her passion and interest in making a difference in the lives of others,’’ Jervis said. “These qualities will carry her far in her RHS major and any additional education and career she pursues.’’
Coduti expressed similar feelings. “This experience for Maria will be very beneficial when she graduates, no matter where she is going to work,’’ she said. “Her work in developing and being president of WINGS shows skills in organization, collaboration and problem-solving – finding where there is a need and doing something about it.’’
The need is long-term in Walls’ eyes.
“I like to compare this club to building a business,’’ she said. “You start with an idea, you find people to help you and you really have to trace your steps to make sure you’re building a solid foundation that’s going to last far after I’m gone and I’ve graduated.’’