Student overcomes tremendous odds to finish degree

Holly Ellingwood has had to overcome tremendous odds to complete her degree. (Anja Karadeglija Photo)

When Holly Ellingwood receives her diploma this month, it will be a moment two decades in the making.

“There are no words to contain the excitement and exultation that we feel – me and everyone around me. No one can believe it,” Ellingwood says.

In 1992, after an illness left her housebound, she was forced to work on her degree from home – one course at a time. She is graduating with a honours bachelor’s degree in criminology and criminal justice, with a concentration in psychology. Due to her disability, she won’t be able to attend the Convocation ceremony.

Ellingwood was a second-year, full-time student when she ate some food that contained a toxin. Her symptoms were initially misdiagnosed as the flu and she was left with damage to her vestibular system.

She now has impaired vision and mobility. “Anything that’s autonomic, so the immune system, breathing, muscle contractions, kinaesthetic sense, that kind of thing – they’re all pretty botched up,” Ellingwood explains.

She has to be careful about the amount of time she spends reading and on the computer, since the two activities can trigger vestibular seizures, as does travel in any sort of a vehicle.

“The first three years were probably the hardest because all of a sudden the people who are your friends all of a sudden aren’t your friends, so you have to go through this whole transition and there’s no handbook … they don’t give you any kind of guidelines – OK, now you’re permanently disabled, this is what you need to do,” she says.

Different accommodations were needed in order for her to complete her courses: classes were recorded, note-takers took class notes and handouts were sent to her. Because she can only read in small chunks of time, tests and exams had to be take-home. Accommodations were also made for assignments such as oral presentations. “It’s almost like you need proxies for everything,” she says. Despite all of the challenges she faces, Ellingwood maintained an A average and was awarded a Senate Medal for Outstanding Academic Achievement.

“It’s a really steep learning curve … but whenever I hear: ‘You can’t do that,’ I always wonder: ‘Why not?’”

She jokes: “I understand the jet pilot thing – that makes sense – but, you know, why can’t I do things like get a job?”

Nancy McIntyre, who was Ellingwood’s disabilities counsellor at the Paul Menton Centre for 12 years, describes her as resilient.

“She perseveres when she feels something is important – whether it’s in her own studies or something she feels should be accessible for her or someone in the future,” McIntyre says.

“She’s very giving of her time and (helps) other people despite the fact that often, she’s the one who needs help.”

Over the years, Ellingwood has worked as a research assistant and a marking assistant, and she has also volunteered with the Paul Menton Centre, helping other students with tutoring and editing.

Laura Brawn, Ellingwood’s current disabilities co-ordinator, says that “thanks to Holly, there’s been more awareness of change – where it needs to be made in the university.”

Ellingwood has received the Dr. John Davis Burton Award, given annually to a student from Carleton, the University of Ottawa, Algonquin College or La Cité collégiale, who “has made a significant contribution toward awareness, equality and integration of persons with disabilities within his/her educational community.” Conference phones were set up so that Ellingwood could give her speech, Brawn remembers.

Though she’s graduating, Ellingwood isn’t finished at Carleton – she is set to begin working on a master’s degree in psychology. She recently learned that she received a prestigious Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) scholarship and hopes to focus her thesis on geographic profiling.

“Honestly, getting the whole master’s … I still don’t quite believe it – I actually printed out and kept copies of the papers to have it in a folder just to look at and read and go: “Wow”- this is really happening?  Really?  Awesome.”

This entry was written by Anja Karadeglija and posted in the issue. Tags applied to this article are: , . Leave a comment, bookmark the permalink or share the following short URL for this article via social media:

Anja Karadeglija

By Anja Karadeglija

Anja Karadeglija completed two undergraduate degrees at Carleton: a Bachelor of Journalism and a B.A. in Political Science. She currently works as a freelance journalist.

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