Motherhood inspired her to finish her degree, after disability disrupted her plans
On a typical busy weeknight, Gabrielle Vander Kuyl plays with her 3 year-old daughter while her stepson does homework at the kitchen table and her husband Eric cooks dinner nearby.
Gabrielle offers her son help with his math worksheet, but after dinner, she’ll turn to her own homework. She’s studying for her last exam before she completes her nursing degree at UNC-Greensboro.
In addition to two kids, four pets, and a big test coming up, Gabrielle also has a disability that requires her to use a power wheelchair and limits the use of her hands.
“I'm a quadriplegic, c5, c6, which is a higher vertebrae,” Gabrielle explains.
Becoming paralyzed seven years ago - in the middle of her senior year of college - hasn't stopped Gabrielle from finishing her degree. It just slowed her down. After a five year break, she returned in 2021 to complete all her classes. Despite her disability, she says her personal struggles aren’t unique.
“I mean it’s just hard to go back to school in general, right? Life gets to you. You get to you,” Gabrielle says, “But I think it’s just an accomplishment that everyone deserves to feel.”
Thousands of non-traditional students return to college and succeed
Each spring, tens of thousands of students who've gone back to college nationwide will cross the commencement stage to accept their hard-earned diplomas. According to a report from the National Student Clearinghouse, 60,400 students who re-enrolled after a break earned their first-ever degree the year Gabrielle returned to school. Now she will be one of them.
Students who return after having some college experience are actually more likely to finish a degree than a first-time college freshman, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics.
It was a real healing journey, because I had, since my injury, figured out all the things my body couldn’t do, and had forgotten everything I could do.Gabrielle Vander Kuyl
“You’re more focused and you’re more prioritized,” Gabrielle says. “So I believe it. I totally believe that statistic.”
Gabrielle says it wouldn’t be possible for her to go back to school without her husband. He gets her and the kids ready in the morning, comes with her to class, and helps her take notes. A registered nurse himself, Eric is Gabrielle's full time caregiver and partner in life – and school.
“I would say for anyone it's a family commitment, when you have a family and you're going back to school, like everyone kind of has to be on the same page with it,” Gabrielle says.
Her family is also what motivated her to return to school, especially after giving birth to her daughter against odds.
“That was a journey in itself and it was a real healing journey, because I had, since my injury, figured out all the things my body couldn’t do, and had forgotten everything I could do,” Gabrielle says. “She actually inspired me to go back to school, to be able to tell my daughter my full story with that being part of it.”
The long road to graduation day
In 2016, Gabrielle was just one semester away from finishing nursing school, when she went home for winter break and her brother attacked her. While running away, she injured her spinal cord.
She landed in the ICU on life support, then spent a year in full-time rehab, relearning how to navigate the world. It put her life on pause while her classmates graduated. She says there were times when it didn’t feel fair.
“After my injury, it was a real lot, and especially because it was family trauma. All of that wasn’t fair, and then not being able to finish school and my last semester, right, that was so not fair,” Gabrielle says.
Her life changed when she met Eric after her injury. They became close friends, then fell in love, combined their families, and had a baby. Their daughter spent weeks in the NICU. They brought her home just as the pandemic hit. And in those moments, up late at night, Gabrielle started to think about nursing school.
“That’s when you get your moments of inspiration is in chaos, right? Like, you get so much clarity of what you want to do when you’re in the midst of not being able to do it,” Gabrielle says.
Her husband Eric says those are the moments they learned to push through.
“With Gabby having almost finished the program, going back feels like something in life is… is fair,” Eric says. “There’s always hardship, but there are those moments where you can see fairness, you can see triumph.”
On the day of her graduation, Gabrielle rolled across the stage to accept her diploma, and returned back to the row where her family was cheering for her. Eric turned her tassel and she beamed.
Next up, Gabrielle hopes to pursue a career as a nursing case manager, checking up on long-term patients as they move forward in their own lives.