Graduate student nearing goal of having benches installed at shuttle stops

Though her own health is less than satisfactory, Maria Aguilar Walls maintains a passion to improve the lives of many other Penn State students with disabilities.

Walls, a master of higher education major, noticed a few years ago as an undergraduate in rehabilitation and human services in the College of Education that there were no benches at bus stops on the paratransit bus route around the sprawling Penn State campus.

A constant battle with gastroparesis -- a paralysis of the stomach tract and intestines -- and Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS) -- an autonomous nervous disorder as well as circulatory condition – leaves Walls feeling fatigued, dizzy and nauseous, causes joint pain and compromises her immune system, leading to a variety of nagging illnesses.

That hasn't deterred her desire to right what she perceives as wrong and to advocate for benches to be placed at various campus shuttle stops. After a few years, some red tape and some cooperation – and money -- from University Park Undergraduate Association and Penn State Transportation Services, benches will be installed this summer at the stops at the Arboretum, Warnock Commons, Rec Hall, Pollock Road East, East Halls, Palmer Art Museum and Pollock/Bigler Road.

Walls was contacted last summer by UPUA member Anthony Stem, who said UPUA wanted to make improving the lives of students with disabilities a priority. "And they wanted me to partner with them to work on any initiative that I really wanted to," Walls said. "The first thing that came to mind was that we need to put benches on all of the bus stops along the ADA accessible route that don't have benches. It was a project between Anthony and me since July."

Stem said the UPUA was the best vehicle to bring Walls' ideas to fruition and the best organization on campus to convey the needs and perspectives of students to administrators. "Maria and I held numerous meetings to identify which shuttle stops required benches and to develop an effective pitch for administrators," Stem said.

"With the assistance of Cody Heaton, chairman of the UPUA Facilities Committee, we met with OPP and Transportation Services to discuss the project and its importance for the Penn State community. Toward the end of the semester, I sponsored legislation in UPUA's general assembly that secured the final piece of funding for the project," he said.

Total cost is $24,500, Stem said. Transportation Services picked up the bulk of it -- $21,000 -- and UPUA the remainder.

"Securing the funding for these benches was a major win for the assembly and the Penn State community, and I truly believe it will help to improve the day-to-day experience for students on campus," Stem said. "It is my hope that, through our work together, Maria and I have made the needs of students with disabilities a salient issue that the UPUA will continue to address for years to come."

That is Walls' wish as well.

"I struggle at times because on one hand I think that it's not somebody's fault if they don't understand the needs of people with disabilities if it's something that's never been forced to be on your radar," said Walls, who as an undergraduate started a student group named WINGS that offers various services to students with disabilities.

"Installing benches along the bus stops seems very trivial; it seems like a small thing that only affects a number of people. I like to emphasize with other people that 100 small things strung together makes a life raft. For a lot of people, that life raft is the difference between them having a successful college experience or not," Walls said.

It all worked out, she said, because once she was able to resonate with people's emotions, "that was where success came."

Walls also said she wasn't the only person who noticed this particular problem; other students with disabilities have given positive reactions. "They said that was something they had noticed when they had ridden the bus, so it was a success for all of us, I would say," Walls said.

That success stemmed from Walls' passion for advocating for students with disabilities. "Because not only am I advocating for myself but I am advocating for people like me who don't have a voice," she said. "I think the needs for students with disabilities are not quite on the radar at Penn State at the moment and I feel like even though my efforts are small, we are making a difference.

"The lives of people with disabilities are improving on this campus. It's the little project like these that make me feel there's hope, that make me understand while things take time and things move slowly that as long as there are people who care about this, something will get done," Walls said.

It's that type of caring and passion that Walls wants to help shape her career. "I love doing this type of work," she said. "It's actually what's influencing my future career prospect."

After she completes her master's program, she wants to pursue a doctoral degree in education policy. "Dream job, I would love to work in Washington, D.C., and do advocacy on a national scale to influence legislation and policy as it relates to the accessibility and inclusion of students with disabilities in higher education," Walls said.

"I want to help universities put students with disabilities on the radar and help them improve all of the small ways that they're not being accessible and just making students' lives better."

Walls is finally able to deal with what her own life is offering. "I think at some point in the past year I woke up and realized I'm going to be sick for the rest of my life, there's nothing that I can do about that," she said. "It might be easier for me to not be in school and take an easier sort of lifestyle, but I don't think that that's what I was called to do.

"I feel very strongly that I've been given a voice for students with disabilities and I would like to use that to help others. I don't think that my life is about me anymore. I think that it's about the people I can help. And if I don't, I'm not sure that anybody else will. That's motivation enough for me," Walls said.

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Last Updated February 08, 2018