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Disabled St. John’s Grad Seeks Funds For Master’s In U.K.

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THERESA WINSLOW
The Capital

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — She couldn’t get to the bell, so they brought her to it.

In the traditional wicker chair, up five flights of stairs. Two St. John’s College students hoisted Micaela MacDougall to the top of McDowell Hall.

Seniors usually ring the bell at midnight after turning in their research papers, but MacDougall can’t stay up that late and is wheelchair-bound. A small group turned up at 9:30 p.m. Feb. 1 to help and celebrate.

“It just meant a lot to know they cared about me and helped me overcome an obstacle,” she said.

Just the latest one.

MacDougall graduated from the Annapolis college last month at age 19 — she skipped high school — despite suffering from spinal muscular atrophy, a type of muscular dystrophy. She can’t walk, has only partial use of her arms and tires easily.

She handles schoolwork herself, but needs help dressing, bathing and going to the bathroom. Parents Gregg and Lynn, both 49, help at home; students stepped in to assist in college.

Her disability “created this hardship, but it’s also created these opportunities to be the person she is,” said friend and former classmate Alexandra Fitzmorris of California.

One of these opportunities is attending graduate school at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

“I don’t know if I’d call myself an adventurer,” Micaela said. “But if I want something, I’m willing to take risks to get it.”

The only problem is the family needs to raise about $75,000 for tuition and living expenses to move abroad for a year. They don’t need the entire amount by the end of the summer — just around $30,000 to get the ball rolling.

The MacDougalls already uprooted once, from Pennsylvania, leaving jobs and family, so Micaela could go to St. John’s. She’s an only child.

In Annapolis, Lynn works two part-time jobs and is Micaela’s primary caregiver. Gregg, a Presbyterian pastor, runs a small church out of the family home and is a handyman.

Micaela hopes to enroll in a program leading to a master’s of theology, imagination and the arts.

The family has roots in Scotland and Micaela already knows one of the professors at St. Andrews. She has been to the United Kingdom twice before, including a two-week summer British literature program at the University of Cambridge she helped finance by writing a short theology book.

St. John’s has a Graduate Institute, and there are other, closer colleges where she could earn a master’s degree, but she said St. Andrews is an ideal fit.

“She got in,” Lynn said. “Why not try?”

Micaela is quiet and a planner. For example, knowing she has limited energy, she added up the total number of pages she’d have to read each semester at St. John’s and divided it by the number of days, sticking to a strict schedule.

This contrasts with her love of fantasy novels, especially the works of C.S. Lewis and J.R. Tolkien. She wrote her senior St. John’s paper comparing “The Lord of the Rings” characters Frodo and Aragorn to Jesus.

If she could be any character from the Tolkien books, she’d be the elf Galadriel — not all-powerful, but all-knowing, she said. The family dog, a miniature poodle Havanese mix, is called Strider, one of Aragorn’s other names.

With fantasy, Micaela said, she’s not “trapped inside my own limitations.”

The reality is that the MacDougalls are liquidating assets. They’ve also applied for several small scholarships and qualify for a $20,000 loan. Ideally, they’d rather not borrow, since the interest rate is extremely high, so they’re raising money online. They’ve accumulated $11,450 via the Internet and two fundraisers are planned.

“If I can play a tiny role in helping her become the woman she was created to be, it’s an honor,” said Townsend McNitt, who is hosting one of the fundraisers and knows the family through St. Anne’s Church. “You get inspired by her to look at things more deeply and to appreciate the beauty that’s all around us.”

St. John’s President Chris Nelson is hosting the second fundraiser.

“What’s she doing is important,” Nelson said. “She trying to realize a dream she can’t make on her own. All of us would love to help.”

Lynn wants herself and her husband to accompany Micaela at least at first, to assist with any problems that arise. Down the road, they’re going to look into independent living arrangements for their daughter.

If they don’t raise enough money, they’re willing to defer Scotland for a year. If it doesn’t pan out then, grad school in the U.S. is a third option, Lynn said.

With Micaela, there’s a sense of doing as much as they can as soon as they can, Lynn said. The disease is degenerative, and while it might not lead to a shortened lifespan, she’ll most likely get weaker as she gets older.

Ultimately, Micaela wants to get a doctorate and be a college professor.

Gregg said things have a way of working out for the family, and people have rallied around them before.

Two Christmases ago, someone dropped an envelope into the mail slot on their front door with 10 $100 bills inside.

No note. Just the cash.

“They’re a remarkable family,” said Deede Rivers, who is active with St. Anne’s. “They’re the kind of people who are in your life and you’re glad you connect with them.”
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Information from: The Capital of Annapolis, Md., http://capitalgazette.com

(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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