Recently, my niece Ptahra Jeppe, shared with me the account of her latest academic and career triumphs. I am so very proud of Ptahra, who deserves every accolade for her diligence, fortitude, and belief in herself. By overcoming every roadblock despite her dyslexia, she graduated magna cum laude from law school with a double degree, and passed the bar on the first go-round! Ptahra bares her soul to share some of her journey to these incredible accomplishments.
As we all work to stay safe, I thought I would share some good news and celebrate the closing of a chapter in my life. I am proud to announce that in December, I graduated magna cum laude from Syracuse University College of Law. As a joint degree student, I earned a Juris Doctor with a curricular focus in Disability Law & Policy, and my Master of Science degree in the Cultural Foundations of Education with a Certificate of Advanced Study in Disability Studies. Most excitingly, on Friday, before moving back to New York City, I found out that I passed the New York bar!
All of this was quite an accomplishment because, as many of you know, I am extremely dyslexic. Now at the age of 30, and after working with some of the best specialists in the country, I am able to identify on my own without accommodation some words that a fourth grader can, and I am in the 0.1 percentile of adult readers. I was told by some that graduating high school or going to college was not an option. But thanks to opportunity, access, an amazing family, wonderful friends, great educators, fantastic advocates, assistive technology, multi-sensory educational practices, accommodations, lots of faith, and hard work, I was able to defy the odds in navigating academia and the world beyond. Specifically, here is what I was able to achieve:
- Received the National Association of Women Lawyers Award, given to a graduate who has shown academic achievement, motivation, tenacity, and drive, and who, in the future, will contribute to the advancement of women in society;
- Received the Seeley Johnson Award, given to a graduate who embodies the highest ideals of professionalism, integrity, diversity, and leadership. This award is named for the first woman to graduate from the Syracuse University College of Law, Bessie Seeley (L’1903), and the first African American to graduate from the Syracuse University College of Law, William Herbert Johnson (L’1903);
- Was recognizedas a member of the Justinian Honorary Law Society, which distinguishes the academic achievement of the top 20% of the third-year class and the top 10% of the second-year class;
- Was recognizedfor having completed 100+ hours of pro bono service while in law school.
These accomplishments, however, are not mine alone. I am so grateful and thankful for all the love and support that helped to make this possible. Most of all, these accomplishments are for all the students with disabilities like me. Growing up as a black girl from the old Bed-Stuy Brooklyn with extreme dyslexia, I didn’t know anyone with dyslexia or related disabilities, and once I began to learn of them, they didn’t look like me. So, to all special ed students, especially those of color, and for anyone who was told they were just lazy, or dumb, or not able to do things like I was told, these accomplishments are for you!
I know what it is like to yearn for an example or reflection of yourself in others who are valued and in successful positions in life, because it helps reinforce that your opportunities in life are possible and endless. I hope to be an example of that reflection. I followed in the footsteps of those who paved the way for me, and I hope that my fight on the way to making my dreams come true helps to make someone else’s journey a little easier.
Lastly, I am so very excited for this next chapter in my life. I look forward to continuing to work hard and advocate to make sure that every individual has the opportunity, access, and tools they need to succeed!
Despite all their great achievements, the many millions of spring 2020 graduates across the globe, including Ptahra, have unfortunately been robbed of the opportunity to celebrate their rites-of-passage in the traditional way. Most are truly disappointed that they will not be able to walk on stage to receive their diplomas, awards, and honors, with family and guests cheering them on. Nor will they have the chance to hear a compelling keynote speaker encourage them about their own futures. Ptahra has been formidable in her quest to be at the top of her class, and had been looking forward to celebrating live and in-person with family, friends, and schoolmates.
That is why those of us with graduates in our lives, whether they are graduating from kindergarten to first grade, junior high school to high school, or are graduate students like Ptahra, must do all we can to celebrate them during this difficult time. Send a greeting card or a gift, meet up on Zoom, or do whatever you can to let them know how very proud of them you are.
Congratulations again, Ptahra! I remember how it took you two and three times the amount of time to complete your work as compared to your classmates. I am aware of all the tutoring and advocating you had to do in order to receive the appropriate accommodations to get through your work, and the overt racism you faced. But you did it, and you did it in grand style with tenacity, determination, and grace! I know you won’t be deterred by the setbacks of COVID-19. Keep on moving towards your goals to empower others. Your village is very proud of you. We celebrate you!
I was shocked when Ptahra informed me she had no photos from her time at Syracuse University. She said she was never on campus, instead she spent all her time in the library. It was the plan that many photos would be taken on campus grounds during the week of graduation this May. There will be no graduation ceremonies, so please pardon me digging in my archives, and unearthing old, cherished photos.