Tuesday, June 12, 2012

'Proudest Moment' UIS student reaches graduation goal

Children's author Ben Mikaelsen made Mary Hettel, of Marseilles, a promise when she was still a grade school student — he'd be there when she met her goal of receiving a college degree. This spring, he kept that promise when she graduated from the University of Illinois Springfield.

Mary, 25, was born with cerebral palsy. She is non-ambulatory, using a wheelchair, and her verbal skills are limited.

"She can write, but it is not legible," said her mother, Julie Hettel. "She mostly types. A practiced ear can understand her speech. She's verbal if people take the time to let her speak, instead of trying to say what they think she is saying."

Mikaelsen met Mary and her family while he was in Illinois for a round of speaking engagements, and the families remained friendly through the years. At some point, Mikaelsen asked Mary what her biggest dream was, and she replied it was to graduate college. He promised if she met her goal, he would be there.

After graduating high school in 2005, Mary chose to pursue a degree in social work at UIS. Adjustments had to be made to allow her to live away from home, and she took only three to four classes at a time because it takes her longer than most students to do her homework assignments.

But she never gave up, and seven years later she earned her degree, maintaining a regular place on the dean's list.

"It might be a surprise that my course work was the easiest part of college," Mary said. "The biggest challenge was learning to live away from my parents, as a person with a disability. I learned how to do it and just did it."

Hettel was featured in a June 12, 2012, article in The Times, a newspaper in Ottawa, Ill.

Read the story online