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Graduation Caps Years of Courage for Student with Brain Injury

Monika Merola overcomes health obstacles and reaches academic goals

Photo of Monika Morela

Monika Merola

Monika Merola was walking her 6-year-old daughter, Cecilia, home from kindergarten when she was struck by an epiphany.

"Mommy, why don't you have a degree?" asked Cecilia.

Merola stopped in her tracks and suddenly felt tears well up in her eyes.

"I thought, how could I encourage her to pursue her education when I haven't attempted to complete my degree?" Merola said, "That's when I knew I had to go back to UT."

Recovering from a near-fatal brain aneurysm that rendered her legally blind in 2000, Merola spent a year doing very little but praying and walking her daughter to and from school every day.

After brain surgery, doctors said with cognitive therapy she might one day be able to live a comfortable, normal life again. But going back to college was out of the question.

They were right--and wrong. This May, three decades after first setting foot in a college classroom at The University of Texas at Austin, Merola returns to walk across the stage and finally get her bachelor's degree in Spanish and Mexican American studies, exceeding her doctors' expectations.

"My brain injury specialist told me getting a degree is the single most difficult undertaking for a brain-injured patient," Merola said. "I am one of only 10 patients she has encouraged to do so."

Before undergoing brain surgery, she knew there was a chance she would lose her ability to move. But the idea of losing her Spanish frightened her the most.

"I was horribly frightened that this wonderful language that has enriched my life so much would be taken from me," Merola said. "And I worked so hard to become fluent."

When she awoke from surgery, she surprised herself and her family when she began singing in Spanish. After that, she knew she was well on the road to recovery.

"I am somehow certain being bilingual has been instrumental in helping my brain to rewire itself," she said, smiling. "I have always had a strong will, which was not lost with the brain damage. Essentially, my stubbornness has served me well."

Merola, who worked as a senior financial analyst for 17 years, was highly skilled in accounting and bookkeeping. But after the brain aneurysm, she had trouble just balancing her checkbook. In addition to losing more than half her vision, the brain damage depleted her thought-processing and problem-solving abilities.

"Learning about and accepting the complexities of my disability has been a gradual, sometimes painful process," Merola said. "Keeping a positive attitude is essential. More than anything, my faith has carried me through."

As for life after graduation, she is still weighing her options. With her love of the Spanish language, she strives to work with heritage speakers of Spanish to help them learn how to hone their English speaking abilities, yet retain their Spanish. She also has aspirations to be an advocate for students recovering from brain injuries.

The most important advice she could give to students with learning disabilities, she says, is to ask for help.

Merola credits the university's faculty and staff, including Arlene Montgomery, a lecturer in the School of Social Work, and Cristina Cabello de Martinez, a lecturer in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, for their emotional support and assistance guiding her through the university's resources such as Services for Students with Disabilities.

"Monika is gifted with courage and empathy that exceeds anyone's expectations, yet she is humble, intelligent and filled with a childlike joy that can only bring happiness and awe to anyone's heart," Cabello de Martinez said. "With eloquence she has accomplished her dual degrees, and in the process, enlightened many of us who have had the privilege to work with her."

Watch a video with Monika Merola...

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By Jessica Sinn, College of Liberal Arts, 512-471-2404