"Getting Out" the Hard Way

Barbaro Ponce The Georgia Tech education is tough for anyone, but some have overcome extreme hardship to earn a degree.

by Dave McGill

I had the pleasure of serving as emcee at Student Honors Day in May of 1987. On the way home that night, I felt good about the ceremony--more than 100 outstanding Tech students had been honored, mostly for their fine academic achievements. And some 400 people had somehow been squeezed into the Ballroom to applaud them. Yet something was missing.

Before I arrived home, I realized there are many Tech students who would never receive awards like those we hand out at Honors Day each year, for reasons beyond their control, students who had persisted in spite of extreme hardship and obtained a degree from Tech with grade-point averages that, while respectable, would never earn them a seat at Honors Day.

The next day, I began to look for a corporate sponsor for a new "Perseverance Award." John Hannabach, director of Career Services, assisted by lining up interviews for me with company representatives as they came to campus to talk with our students. Finally, after more than two years, we succeeded when on Oct. 19, 1989, Bob Siler of Dow Chemical liked the idea. Dow has gratiously given us $1,000 to fund the Perseverance Award each year since then. Nine awards have been presented.

1990--Mark Benson

Mark Benson was diagnosed with bone cancer following back surgery when he was 13 years old. With a 20 percent chance of survival, Mark underwent three months of daily radiation and weekly chemotherapy, which then continued biweekly for two years.

Mark's cancer went into remission in 1978, but the radiation had caused severe intestinal and other damage. He was left with radiation enteritis, a painful condition for which there is no cure.

After entering Georgia Tech in 1981, Mark had five more major surgeries, forcing him to drop out for as long as two years at a time. But he always returned, sometimes for one course, other times for a full load, and he finally graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering in June 1989.

At Tech, Mark was a dorm counselor for two-and-one-half years, a member of Theta Chi Fraternity and ASME, and a snare drummer in the marching band. At the time of his award, he was living in Cincinnati, working as a systems engineer at General Electric's Manufacturing Technology Laboratory.

One of his four nominators wrote: "I know firsthand of the constant pain and suffering Mark experienced, yet there was never a personal complaint or a feeling of self pity--just sheer dogged determination to become a Tech alumnus. He does, indeed, epitomize the personal and professional attributes that make America what it is."

When told of his selection, Mark replied, "I've never won anything before in my life." Right then and there I knew the award would itself persevere, because bringing recognition to those whose circumstances had always prevented it was what the award was intended to be.

Linda Liles Poythress

1991--Linda Liles and Jim Oliver

At the time of her honor, Linda Liles was a single parent raising three children for whom she had been fully responsible for several years. One was a daughter in college, one a son in high school, the third a daughter in the seventh grade.

In 1984, Linda realized the only way out of poverty was the freedom and financial security that a college education could bring. Linda had to start her college career on conditional acceptance due to her high school record, but she immediately became an honor student and remained one thereafter. She graduated cum laude from Georgia State in 1989 and two years later completed her master's degree in city planning at Tech with a GPA of nearly 3.7.

Linda worked concurrently as many as three part-time jobs to support her family while carrying a full-time graduate course load at Tech. She was not only a magnificent example of perseverance, but also a true role model for the non-traditional student.

An ophthalmic reading of "20-70 uncorrectable" constitutes legal blindness. Jim Oliver's eyes are much worse than that, 20-400+, and he can barely read the big E at the top of the chart with one eye. He has degenerative macular myoptic optic atrophy, and could not read his textbooks without a hand-held magnifier, nor the blackboard during class at all.

Jim took notes by listening to the professor and writing down what he heard but could never see. He had to get so close to the paper to write that he was often unjustly accused of sleeping in class. In spite of his blindness, Jim obtained a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering in 1990, making the dean's list five times. He later received a master's degree in nuclear engineering in 1992.

In spite of Jim's blindness, he served the campus and the community in several ways: He was president and founder of Tech's Habitat for Humanity chapter, helping to build homes for the poor. Jim organized the workdays for more than 100 volunteers, and worked on fundraising. He was also a volunteer tutor in the Techwood Tutorial Project. Jim was active in student government, serving as a graduate student senator and a trustee on the board of the Georgia Tech Student Foundation.

Jim said that his biggest problem is that as he grows older, the print gets smaller while his problem gets worse. Nonetheless, he persevered and was a shining example to the Tech community and beyond.

1992--Matt Conaway

Matthew James Conaway was born with mixed athetoid and spastic cerebral palsy. He is unable to walk, use his hands or speak clearly, and probably had to overcome greater physical limitations than any other student in Georgia Tech's history. But Matt was in no way impaired mentally, and he was best described as a superior student with a great deal of good humor and wit.

Matt was delivered to his classes and everywhere else in a wheelchair and took notes with a tape recorder; anything on the blackboard had to be remembered. Assignments were done with the aid of a computer in his dormitory room, which he operated slowly and laboriously by using a stick held in his mouth to push the keys. Tests were taken either orally or at home with the aid of his computer, and special arrangements were often necessary. Matt, however, was determinedly independent. He resisted all but the most necessary assistance from other students and insisted on being given tests and assignments comparably challenging to any other student.

Matt's ambition was to become a neuroscientist, and in working toward that goal he received not one, but two degrees from Tech: an undesignated degree in engineering in September 1991 and a bachelor's degree in applied mathematics in June 1992. Matt's perseverance in "getting out twice" inspired everyone who had the pleasure of knowing him.

Tammy Gammon

1993--Tammy Gammon

Tammy Gammon suffers from severe chemical allergy problems, complicated by an autoimmune thyroid disorder and the Epstein Bar virus syndrome. Because of her allergies, she was unable to continue in chemical engineering and switched to electrical engineering in 1990. Tammy graduated with highest honors in March 1993.

Tammy was known to all Georgia Tech faculty who taught her. The surgical mask she wore to assist her breathing called attention to her presence and to the great difficulty she had in just getting through each session.

Every quarter presented new challenges. Sometimes Tammy would have an allergic reaction and have to leave class. There were quarters in which she had to withdraw from classes held in rooms that aggravated her allergies. Her allergic reactions were so intense in one building that she eventually had to take the lab course at home with equipment borrowed from a friend. Several times she had to withdraw from school entirely, due to respiratory infections. Yet Tammy pressed on, and her determination became an inspiration to her professors and fellow students. Today, she is a teaching assistant working toward a doctorate at Tech. She still wears her mask, but now from the front of the classroom.

Gammon's difficulties resulted in the pinpointing of many environmental problem areas on the campus that are still receiving attention.

1994--Barbaro Ponce

Barbaro Ponce entered the world in Havana on Dec. 15, 1967, with severe birth defects, including very short stature and only one finger at the end of his left arm. In that country at that time, rehabilitation for disabled children was practically non-existent.

Several years later, two of Barbaro's aunts emigrated to the United States and settled in Atlanta. They wrote to Gov. Jimmy Carter and to the U.S. embassy about their little nephew who needed assistance to become self-sufficient. Carter arranged visas for Barbaro and his parents and sister to come to Atlanta, where the 5- year-old who had never stood unassisted began a program of physical rehabilitation at Scottish Rite Children's Hospital. Six months later, he was walking.

During the next few years, Barbaro was also faced not only with starting a new school in a strange country, but also with learning a new language. But he persevered and began to make great strides in his physical development.

Twelve years later, after graduating from high school, Barbaro Ponce applied to Georgia Tech but was initially turned down. He attended Mercer University and DeKalb College for a year each, then was finally admitted to Tech in 1989. He graduated with a bachelor's degree from the College of Architecture in 1992 and later received a master's in architecture in 1995. While an undergraduate, Barbaro was elected president of the American Institute of Architecture Students within his college.

Barbaro has never once looked upon his condition as a hardship, although he admits it takes him a little longer than others to get around and to complete some projects. Barbaro now works for an architecture firm in Panama City, Fla., and he recently competed in the 1996 Paralympic Games at his alma mater.

1995--Frank Mess and Lee Scott Gardner

When he was a junior at Tech, Francis McCarthy "Frank" Mess was in a terrible elevator accident while in Florida. He suffered a crushed pelvis and serious damage to several major organs. He was in an induced coma for more than six weeks, and underwent nearly 40 surgeries by the time of his award.

Frank was in a wheelchair for 21 months after he was released from the hospital, and he was forced to take a year off from school. He then had a hip implant and graduated from using a walker to crutches. Initially, both of Frank's legs were completely paralyzed, but the nerves have been gradually regenerating.

During Frank's second quarter back at Georgia Tech, he was again forced to withdraw due to a serious infection. As a result of the infection, heart surgery was required. Frank made up his final exams for Fall 1993 during the winter quarter between three separate surgeries.

Frank was able to accept his award in Spring 1995 with the aid of crutches. A week later, he received his bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering and is now proceeding toward a master's.

In his early 20s, Lee Scott Gardner was injured in a dune-buggy accident that left him paralyzed from the waist down, with only limited use of his hands. For nearly 20 years he required the assistance of others to drive and help him with everyday activities.

Several years ago, Lee and his yellow labrador, Yuban, graduated from the Canine Companions for Independence intensive training program. With Yuban helping perform countless small tasks, Lee was able to apply his initiative to many things he couldn't do before, such as driving a specially modified van, raising money for Canine Companions, and achieving a master's degree in the summer of 1994 in the area of systems analysis, with a certificate in test and evaluation.

Lee works at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., where he is manager of a programming division. Lee also teaches computing two nights a week in a community college.

Lee's advisor, Dr. Jerry Banks, related that at graduation Yuban was also presented a certificate entitled Caninus Assistante Extraordinaire, for, among other things, attending and faithfully enduring several hundred hours of boring classes.

1996--Tamara Truitt

On Aug. 7, 1992, Tamara Truitt was walking along Ponce de Leon Avenue when a man grabbed her from behind, dragged her behind some bushes, tore off her clothes and inflicted several blows to her head with a brick. Unconscious, Tamara was not found until the next afternoon. Admitted to Grady as a "Jane Doe," she was unidentified for two days. She spent 12 days in the hospital, eight of them in intensive care, then she underwent more than a year of physical treatment and counseling.

Tamara returned to school and quickly made up her incompletes, but had a long road back to becoming a regular student, what with the fear and emotional trauma; the stress of press coverage; excruciating headaches; and temporary disfigurements to her fingers, eyes, teeth and ears, not to mention her shaved head from the surgery.

Over the 3-1/2 years that have elapsed, Tamara has, in her own words, turned that terrible day into a positive learning experience. She says: "I have come to accept what happened to me and have dealt with it. I am mostly very thankful for my life. I not only survived, but I am doing well. And my dream is about to come true: I am graduating with my bachelor's degree in civil/environmental engineering. I am hoping to continue my education here at Georgia Tech and earn my master's in environmental engineering. I am very excited about my future. I know it is a promising one."

Dave McGill is director of the Center for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning and a professor in the Civil and Aerospace Engineering Schools.