A Double Major Defying Her Disability One Headstand at a Time

 

Today, we’re sharing the learning story of Alex Pizano, a sophomore at Chaffey College in Rancho Cucamonga, California. The school is one of ten finalists for the 2017 Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence. The prize will be awarded this week in Washington, D.C.


From Disability to Ability

When Alex Pizano was born with cerebral palsy (CP), doctors said she would likely never talk or walk.

Alex is now in her second year at Chaffey College in Rancho Cucamonga, California.

She’s a first-generation college student.

She’s double majoring in psychology and art.

She works on campus in the Disability Services department.

She is the founder and president of an extracurricular club dedicated to helping those struggling with depression, addiction, and self-injury.

And on weekends, she volunteers in her community as a crisis counselor.

“I’m proud that I’ve pushed past what others thought—and what I thought—were my limits,” Alex says. “I don’t plan to stop pushing any time soon.”

Discovering a Passion

Alex says her interest in psychology began well before she chose it as one of her college majors.

In high school, she signed up for an introductory course.

When her class got to the unit on abnormal psychology, Alex says something clicked for her.


When her class got to the unit on abnormal psychology,
Alex says something clicked for her.


“There were several of us in the room who, in some way, struggled with the disorders we were learning about,” she says. “It was the first time schoolwork affected me on a personal level.”

Alex continued to develop her interest in the subject once she enrolled at Chaffey.

“I took my first course with a professor who had a reputation for being really tough,” Alex says.

Again, she defied the odds.

“I aced the class.”

“At that point, I was pretty sure I wanted a career in psychology,” Alex says, “but that solidified my plan even more, and showed me that I really can do this.”

After graduation, Alex says she plans to get her Master’s Degree in psychology.

A Second Major, And An Escape Through Art

Art, Alex’s other major, has been a longtime interest as well.

When she was younger, Alex says she was bullied by students at school who didn’t understand her disability.

“Art was a way to cope, to escape the pain.”

During the especially difficult times, Alex says she spent hours drawing and painting flowers and trees.


When she was younger, Alex says she was bullied by students
at school who didn’t understand her disability.


“At that point, art was just a way to forget about reality, to transport myself to a better place,” Alex says.

But one day, she came across an article about art therapy online.

Alex learned that art therapists, trained in both therapy and art, work to help patients improve their physical, mental, and emotional well-being by expressing themselves through the creative process.

“I’d seen the huge benefits of therapy in my own life,” Alex says, “And I consider myself pretty good at art, so I thought, ‘why not make a career out of those two things?’”

Alex decided then to made art her second major. She says she plans to work toward an art therapy certification after graduation.

“I’ve gotten so much hope through both therapy and art,” Alex says.

“I want to pay it forward, and help empower others going through the same things I did.”

Working on the Weekends

In addition to working towards her degree, Alex volunteers as a crisis counselor on the weekends.

The work can be tough, she says, but the impact she has on others makes it worth the effort.

“The other week, I met a young man who had been kicked out of his home by his parents. He was so broken.”


Alex says she struggled to relate to him at first,
but didn’t give up onfinding common ground.


Alex says she struggled to relate to him at first, but didn’t give up on finding common ground.

“I talked to him about the things in my life I was happy about, and eventually he shifted focus away from all the negativity and did the same,” Alex says.

“In twenty minutes, we went from rock bottom to real progress. I saw the real impact I was having on him, and it was an amazing moment for me.”

First in Her Family

Alex says that when she was younger, she didn’t think college was an option for her.

“Being a first-generation college student is hard,” she says. “But being a first-generation college student with a disability is even harder.”

For years, Alex saw physical therapists, occupational therapists, and speech therapists.

She drew inspiration from the progress she made, and from her older brother as well.


“I watched him work his way through school, and I pushed myself to
do the same thing,” she says.


“I watched him work his way through school, and I pushed myself to do the same thing,” she says.

Alex is enrolled as a part-time student at Chaffey College, a two-year institution in Southern California.

When she graduates in 2019, she will transfer to University of California at Irvine, and start the fall semester as a full-time junior.

“I’ve worked really hard for this,” she says. “I’m a little nervous, but mostly excited.”

A Standout School

As she looks ahead towards graduation and then graduate school, Alex says she’s particularly proud to be a member of the current Chaffey College community.

That’s because the school is one ten finalists for the 2017 Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence.

The prize, awarded every two years since 2011, recognizes institutions’ achievements in four areas: student learning, certificate and degree completion, employment and earnings for graduates, and access and success for minority and low-income students.

Chaffey College has been selected as a finalist because it serves a diverse student population, has a particularly high first-year retention rate, and has increased the number of degrees awarded by 75 percent over the last five years.


The $1 million prize fund will be awarded this week in Washington, D.C.


The $1 million prize fund will be awarded this week in Washington, D.C.

Alex says there’s a good deal of buzz on campus about the nomination.

“The president sent around a school-wide email when we got the news.”

“That amount of money can make a really big difference for students at a school like ours,” she says.

Alex says that for her, the nomination resonates on a personal level as well.

“Chaffey has done a lot to support me personally, and the 200 or so other students who have physical, learning, and psychological disabilities as well.”

Alex says she knows Chaffey has tough competition for the prize, but is excited by the possibility of winning.

“We could improve the current disability services, expand them, or hopefully both.”

A Magical Moment

Of all her accomplishments in school and in her community, Alex says she’s most proud of her ability to defy whatever odds are in front of her.


Of all her accomplishments in school and in her community, Alex says she’s most proud of her ability to defy whatever odds are in front of her.


Most recently, she says she’s struggled with her mobility below the waist.

She wanted to do something that would keep her working on her it regularly, so this semester, she enrolled in a yoga class.

“I wasn’t sure how much I would be able to do, Alex says. “But I pushed myself, like always.”

This week, she did a headstand.

“Having a disability, whatever it is, doesn’t have to stop anyone from achieving what they want in life. It hasn’t stopped me.”