05/12/08 — WCC graduate did not let his limitations stop degree

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WCC graduate did not let his limitations stop degree

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on May 12, 2008 1:45 PM

Edna Smith of Snow Hill did not have to wait until graduation day at Wayne Community College to celebrate her son, Sheldon's accomplishment.

She has been with him all the way.

Sheldon, now 33, was born with spina bifida. He is also blind in one eye and legally blind in the other. He gets around in a wheelchair.

The second child of Edna and Jesse Smith -- he has an older brother Adrian -- was enrolled in mainstream classes growing up, and always encouraged to keep his grades up.

"We wanted him to accept himself as he is," Mrs. Smith said. "We told him, 'We're not going to be with you always. We're trying to get you where you can adapt on your own.'"

Sheldon, as a result, "just learned to deal with it," he says now.

"And he never asked the question, 'Why?'" his mother noted.

"Not why, but why not me?" her son added.

Sheldon has always had a naturally good attitude, Mrs. Smith said. So when it came time to continue his education, the family atmosphere at Wayne Community College was appealing.

They knew it was going to take a long time to obtain a degree, since the doctor advised taking no more than two courses a semester.

Little did they know when they started in August 1996 that the process would take 11 years. But neither is complaining.

"We started out not to stop but to keep going until he got his degree," Mrs. Smith said.

"I never really worried about how long it was going to take," Sheldon said. "I just knew I had a goal in mind -- I wanted to get my college degree."

He initially studied business administration, changing that two years ago to general occupation technology. He hopes to find a career in business or sales.

Through 8 a.m. classes, good weather, bad weather, the duo became a familiar fixture on the campus.

Retired from the government, Mrs. Smith continued to work in retail, juggling her job throughout Sheldon's college years.

Perhaps she should get a degree, too, many have said.

Mrs. Smith has gone to every class, taken notes, studied with her son each evening.

She shrugs it off as being part of her job as a mother.

"I'm his teacher at home and I don't give him any sympathy," she said. "I want to make sure when he comes to class the next day, he's able to respond."

"My instructors call on her quite often," Sheldon says.

Carl Brow, a counselor at WCC, says he also wishes there was an award for her. They have made a dynamic duo.

"He's so darn likable, you just never see him irritated with anything," he said. "His mother is the same way. Their story is really worth telling. It really is inspiring."

Ray Burrell, Sheldon's college advisor, credited him with being very motivated, ambitious and determined to finish his degree.

"He's always had a smile on his face, even with his condition," he said. "We have had students that don't even have half the disabilities or any at all, and he works hard to get to class."

Knowing the Smiths, he said, "has been a hoot. It's been fantastic. I have enjoyed working with him and his mom, trying to identify the things that they needed to do."

Giving up along the way? Not even in their vocabulary, Burrell said.

"That has never entered his mind or his mom's mind," he said. "They're always looking at what they can do next to try to get through this."

Sheldon's mom said that has always been the case.

"Sheldon is one of those people, he's a go-getter," she said. "Nothing is too hard for him to attain. He takes advantage of every opportunity, I can say that about him, and he never says, 'I can't.'"

Until now. Preparing for Friday night's graduation ceremony, he dug in his heels when his mother suggested she remain in the background.

"That wouldn't work for me," he said. "It's both of our accomplishments."

Although Mrs. Smith said she would be most willing to help her son across the graduation stage, she shied away from any extra attention.

"I told Sheldon this is his day," she said.

"But without her it would not be, so I'm not hearing anything of the sort," he said.

"I feel honored that he wanted me to do that, but I just felt like it was his day and I didn't want to take away from it," she said.

"Not being there would take away from it. That's why you're going to be there," he told his mother.

"I will be there, Sheldon. I will be there," she replied.