Kate Strickland discovers her own voice and resilience through advocacy work
When Kate Strickland left her hometown of Cypress, Texas to attend The University of Texas at Austin, she couldn’t wait to jump on her bike and traverse Austin’s hills and valleys.
“As an avid cyclist throughout high school, I was ecstatic to trade in the boring flatlands of Houston for the hilly rides in Austin, going for training rides every morning before school,” says Strickland, a Plan II Honors/Government senior.
Six weeks into her freshman year, everything changed when a car struck her from behind while she was waiting in a left-turn lane on her way back to campus from a morning ride. The impact from the crash left her with a spinal cord injury, rendering her body mostly paralyzed. Eleven days later, she celebrated her 19th birthday in a rehabilitation hospital, where she began to process her new reality.
One year later, she returned to school and rejoined several student groups only to find that her peers, too, had changed.
“When I first returned to UT, I found many of the friends that I had previously made, and even some friends from my high school that also went to UT, willfully ostracized me because they were uncomfortable with disability,” Strickland says.
In her classes, she often sat in the far back corner of the room, the only space relegated for her power wheelchair. Her feelings of isolation intensified during group activities where classmates actively avoided including her in discussions.
“As time went on, I found I could no longer accept this unequal and unfair status quo,” Strickland says. “I discovered my own resiliency and my own voice, in the process of accepting myself for who and what I am, disability and all.”
Knowing she wasn’t alone in her frustrations, Strickland joined several disability advocacy groups on campus including the DisABILITY Advocacy Student Coalition and—most recently—the Student Government Disabilities and Inclusion Agency. While working alongside her fellow group members on training sessions, research presentations and awareness events, she discovered an exciting new twist in her career path.
“Having experienced disability for the last five-and-a-half years, I’ve learned a lot about the importance of accessibility and inclusion,” Strickland adds. “Ideally, I would like to work within the realm of disability law, especially on an international stage.”
Looking back at her academic journey, she is grateful for her supportive government professor, Dr. Rhonda Evans, who offered her a research internship that spurred her interest in disability law.
“She continues to encourage and support me not only in my capacity as a research intern but also with my senior honors thesis exploring the connection between university accessibility standards and the experiences of students with disabilities,” Strickland says.
Strickland will also never forget her beloved world literature professor, Dr. Jerome Bump, who visited her at the hospital while she was recovering from the accident. He even gave extra credit to her classmates for dropping in for visits and showing their support.
“Professor Bump continued to visit and check in on me multiple times over the next year until I finally returned to finish his class, truly making me feel valued and appreciated,” Strickland says.
Now as she prepares to leave the Forty Acres this May, Strickland hopes to impart some wisdom upon new and returning Longhorns.
“I would tell them to be open and kind to everyone,” She notes. “Diversity is part of what makes our university great, and it is imperative to be inclusive of all students no matter who they are.”