MAXWELL: Long, hard road to degree

4/24/2008 – Printed in the NATIONAL section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper

On Sunday, Lalania Marie Seeders will graduate from the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg with a bachelor’s degree in English.
Her graduation would not be of note if she were an average student. At age 38 and with a grade-point average of 3.55, Seeders is not an average student.
“I started college nearly 20 years ago, but I’m graduating this Sunday,” she said. “It’s my 20th high school reunion coming up in August, so I’ll be there with a college degree.”
A person with cerebral palsy, Seeders, a Pinellas Park native, learned early that she had to put in extra effort to succeed. At 14, she glimpsed the first of the many serious problems she would face, at least in public spaces.
While vacationing with her family in St. Augustine, she had a seizure. “We thought I had a stroke,” she said. “They put me on seizure medication, but it kept happening over and over. Come to find out, it had to do with my menstrual cycle. The first time I had a seizure in eighth grade at Sacred Heart School, they called 911. By the time the ambulance came, I was fine.”
From that point on, people at school knew the routine: Each time Seeders had a seizure, she would black out and would be allowed to rest until she recovered. She had the same problems during her 11 years as a cashier at major a food store. There, too, her supervisors and co-workers adjusted.
All along, even as she experienced problems related to cerebral palsy, underwent several major operations and had a fall at work that required neck and shoulder surgeries, Seeders wanted a college degree. She enrolled in St. Petersburg Junior College in 1990 and completed the associate’s degree. Although the associate’s was a milestone, she was determined to earn a bachelor’s in English.
But before returning to college, she married. Soon, she became a victim of domestic violence, which lasted throughout the three-year union. Because of the abuse, she had to have more surgeries. Her physical therapist determined that she needed a wheelchair for long distances and a cane for walking short distances.
With help from social service agencies and individuals, Seeders was able to enroll in USF in the fall of 2002. Again, however, medical problems slowed her progress. But they did not stop her.
“I had to withdraw to have surgery in 2003,” she said. “I had to withdraw for the whole spring semester of 2006. I didn’t come back until the spring of 2007. And it was six months to the day of post-op from neck surgery that I fell down and had to have surgery again. So I have withdrawn from USF five times to have surgery. I thought I was going to graduate in the fall of 2006. For one whole term, I was flat on my back. I couldn’t hold a book, so somebody read to me.”
Seeders began using her experience to help others. She took a job with Student Disability Services where she reads to other students with disabilities and reads entire textbooks onto tapes.
One day after a lecture, Seeders wound up alone in the classroom. She was in her wheelchair and could not walk. She was unable to open the door because she could not turn the round doorknob. Others rescued her. Deciding never to be trapped again, she began a crusade, outlining the dangers of round doorknobs and the lack of ramps and other conveniences for persons with disabilities. From these efforts, she persuaded officials to establish the annual Disability Awareness Week on campus.
“I believe my greatest accomplishment as a student at USF is implementing Disability Awareness Week,” she said. “I was able to turn my experience of getting stuck in the classroom into a learning experience for the whole campus.
“We have been able to get automatic door openers placed on the Piano Man Building, the Career Center and the Academic Success Center. Ramps have been placed at the entrance of the Williams House and the entrance of the fitness center. Physical plant also installed ‘L’ door handles on the classroom I got stuck in so it would not happen again.”
Sunday’s commencement ceremony will be the most important event of Seeders’ life.
“I went to my physical therapist, and I told him, ‘I’m going to walk. I’m not using the chair. I’m not using the cane.’ I’ve been practicing my walking for graduation. I’ve been doing excellent. I’m going to walk.”