Friday, June 07, 2002

Disease can't stop tenacious graduate

Despite MS, she'll walk with class

By Kristina Goetz,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        In today's commencement procession at the University of Cincinnati, one graduate may need a cane to steady herself.

        But it's a walk that has been seven years in the making.

[photo] Joy Sutherland, with her sons Rajon, 8, (right) and Joshua, 5, will graduate today after juggling college and motherhood and dealing with multiple sclerosis.
(Joseph Fuqua II photo)
| ZOOM |
        Joy Sutherland of Pleasant Ridge will be one of more than 4,000 spring graduates at this afternoon's all-university program.

        As commencement speaker Ben Stein, host of Comedy Central's Win Ben Stein's Money, salutes this year's class, Ms. Sutherland and her family will reflect on her years of struggle to receive a bachelor's degree in psychology.

        “It took me forever and eons, but I did it,” said Ms. Sutherland, who receives federal disability benefits to complement her part-time job as a data collector.

        “I feel so privileged. The point is you get through school and you get finished. I'm just so excited.

        “I got through school with two kids and a disability.”

        The 33-year-old single mother never participated in a high school graduation, although she has her GED.

        But in 1995, through a federal assistance program, Ms. Sutherland began to balance family and college classes.

    • When: 1:30 p.m. today.
    • Where: Shoemaker Center on UC campus.
    • Speaker: Writer-humorist Ben Stein, host of Comedy Central's game show Win Ben Stein's Money.
    • Degrees to be awarded: 607 associate degrees; 2,315 bachelor's degrees; 703 master's degrees; 133 doctoral degrees; 122 law degrees; and 154 medical degrees.
    • Tickets: No longer available.
        At times, there wasn't enough money for Ms. Sutherland to attend UC.

        “I begged family and friends,” she said. “I went for a quarter and didn't go the next.”

        By fall 1998, she was beginning to tire easily and had a difficult time staying awake in classes. She fell at home a couple of times, injuring herself. Doctors attributed the problem to fluid in her ear.

        It was a psychophysiology class that got her thinking the symptoms could be from something else. Her grades continued to worsen before she flunked out for one quarter and was placed on a one-year academic suspension in 1999.

        Those failing grades arrived about the same time that she learned what was causing them: multiple sclerosis, a chronic, incurable and often debilitating disease of the central nervous system.

        Taking the suspension in stride, she worked on her math skills with the help of Jewish Vocational Services, a local group that empowers people to increase self-sufficiency, independence and participation in the community. When the suspension was lifted she returned to campus.

        Through the years, Gail Stocker, Ms. Sutherland's adviser at UC, has helped the soon-to-be graduate through tough times.

        “I took her under my wing as a nontraditional student,” Mrs. Stocker said. “We just had an instant bonding. She has this great attitude, this great spirit no matter what her circumstances.

        “It took her a while, but I knew she would do it.”

        Ms. Sutherland said she wants to be an example to her sons Rajon, 8, and Joshua, 5, who sometimes went to class with her.

        She continues to take weekly shots to slow the symptoms of MS, but the disease won't stop her, she said. She plans to apply either for a part-time teaching position at St. Rita's School for the Deaf in Evendale or as a substitute teacher for Cincinnati Public Schools.

        Ms. Sutherland's ultimate goal is to open fitness centers designed for those with disabilities. But that will require additional education, so she plans to attend the Georgia School of Professional Psychology in Atlanta in fall 2003 to pursue a master's degree in sports exercise psychology.

        “She has the right name — Joy,” Mrs. Stocker said. “She is a joy. I'm just so proud of her, that she's accomplished this goal.”


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