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'Yes I Can Do This'

May 2017 | by Dawn Neuses

Watch this local news story about Gerene TeKippe surprising her parents at graduation. 

Gerene TeKippe is not held back by thoughts of what could happen. Instead, she jumps in and finds out what will happen.

Being adaptive and open to new experiences has led to her success, and led to her surprise walk across the stage May 13 at the St. Ambrose University 2017 Spring Commencement Ceremony, where she was awarded a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology.

Gerene was born with spina bifida. She has used a wheelchair since eighth grade and throughout her time on campus. She wanted to walk across the stage at her high school graduation, but an unforeseen knee surgery prevented her from doing so. "Since college is a much larger milestone than high school, I thought it would be appropriate to bring the surprise to fruition now," she said.

"It is a celebration of making it through school. There are a lot of stereotypes and stigma that surrounds people with disabilities going to four year universities and being successful, and going on to postgraduate education, just because there is not a lot of access there for us to gain those resources," Gerene said.

"This is my way of saying, yes, those stigmas exist, but I made my way around it," she said.

Gerene considers the disability a gift.

"I think in almost every way, yes. It is a huge teaching tool. It has taught me so many things, which gives me the ability to teach others all that stuff, such as how to be adaptable, how to be open minded and see people for who they are and not what they look like." she said.

Gerene has learned there can be more than one solution to a problem. "I try not to get frustrated when the first option I tried didn't work. That has been a challenge in itself to adopt that mindset in general, not even with physical challenges, but challenges in general that arise in life. I think no matter who you are it's a good outlook to have. If you have a one track mind for every problem you encounter you probably not going to get very far. You have to be adaptable," she said.

As an undergraduate, Gerene was involved in Dance Marathon and has participated in at least one SAU choir every year. Right now, she is a member of both the University Choral and Chamber Singers.

Gerene was also a member of Adapt Club, which promotes disability awareness on campus. For several years, she organized the spring wheelchair basketball demonstration and included the Occupational Therapy and Physical Therapy programs to make it a disability awareness fair.

Gerene said her experiences at SAU changed her. "Absolutely," she said. "When I visited campus and immediately got to work with Ryan Saddler and the Student Disability Services office, that in itself was a real eye-opener to me because there was a specific person designed to be on my side and help me with whatever problems may arise. That gave me hope to essentially say, ‘Yes. I can do this. I can go on to college and be successful because there is someone here who can help me with that process,'" she said.

She knows she can continue to "do this" and be successful. Gerene enrolled in SAU's Master of Social Work program last year and is on her way to graduating 2019.

Gerene said when her parents learned she would be born with a disability, social workers became part of their medical team and helped prepare them. "Social workers told them it might be different, but it won't be a bad transition. It will not be awful or life-altering in a bad way, but it will just be different," she said.

The result of that counseling and preparation is why Gerene wants to work in hospital case management with children and families facing complex medical needs. "I feel I am here because that process happened, and I have been provided with opportunities because that process happened, so I feel I need to pay that forward."

Gerene is very close to her brother, Richie, and her parents, who never discouraged her from trying anything. When she was in kindergarten, she told her parents she wanted to play soccer. "They said, ‘All right, there may have to be changes or modifications we have to make, but if you want to try it we will do whatever we can to let you try.' I ended up playing soccer for five years because they gave me that opportunity. They always encouraged me to try everything I wanted to try and not be discouraged by the prospect of it not working out, because if you don't try it, you don't know," she said.

"From the age of five, I've carried that with me and it has served me well in a lot of situations."

Click here to watch a documentary about Gerene TeKippe.

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