When I was in high school I dreamed of going to college like so many of my high school classmates. Because I have an intellectual disability and was going to earn a “Special Diploma” most people thought it was a pipe dream. Although they did not think that it was possible, I never gave up on the idea. I wanted to keep learning as much as I could, and I still do. After all, I worked hard and always tried my best. I was up for the challenge if only I could be given the chance.
A year after I graduated from high school, Project Panther LIFE began. Panther LIFE was a door opener that made my dream of experiencing college a real possibility! Actually, it was not just college, but a big university that gave me the chance to keep learning in an environment that would allow me to be ”worlds ahead!” I am proud and grateful to have been in the very first Panther LIFE class at FIU. My three year journey was wonderful! I learned so much in and out of my classes.
I met some extraordinary people who helped make my journey meaningful and one I could make with enthusiasm and without fear. To name a few, my first professor who taught me “The First Year Experience; my incredible transition team; academic mentors; peer mentors; my best buddy; an awesome Director of the Recreation Center where I got my first on-campus job shadowing experience that led to my first paid job; my RA and many in a student body that recognized that I belonged, allowing me to grow and contribute. I also made some great buddies who also dreamed about having the experience of college. We grew together, and at the same time helped professors, other students, and the community grow too. I think we helped change their thinking in us. I think they got to see eagerness, determination, commitment and talent – even bravery. I think we helped them to recognize that although we may be different, we, too, have gifts and can achieve when given a chance and the right supports.
I loved improving my communication skills by talking to peers in a lot of different settings, using the Communications Arts Studio on campus and taking classes like Public Speaking, Introduction to Acting and Hospitality Management where I had the opportunity to apply what I was learning. The time I spent at FIU gave me the chance not only to learn about technology in class, but the chance to use what I learned out of class. I felt proud that I learned how and had the freedom to travel between and around both campuses on my own. It was pretty cool to meet the authors who wrote books that we read. I even got autographs! The time I spent at our state-of-the-art Recreation Center helped me with fitness, time management, and gave me another place to belong. I explored different restaurants, learned to handle my money with more confidence, travelled out of town to participate in symposiums, competed in team sports, and screaming “GO PANTHERS!” at football games. Aside from some fun social gatherings, during my last year in Panther LIFE I completed a community internship in an area of interest, and got the awesome opportunity to live on campus among my friends and a really cool R.A.! Panther LIFE provided meaningful opportunities and I looked forward to every day. I learned about all kinds of things – including how much potential is inside of me. I feel proud when I CAN and DO when people assumed that I could not. I feel great when I help break down barriers of doubt. What my experience in Panther LIFE at FIU has taught me is that it is important for ME to believe and focus on possibilities – even when others only see impossibilities. I have also learned that it is a good idea to DREAM BIG, and to chase your dreams because with preparation and opportunity, dreams can come true!!
Tyrone N. Harris
~ Panther LIFE Class of 2014~