UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Sydney Rhead always knew she learned differently from her peers, but she didn’t understand why until she was diagnosed with a learning disability in the second grade.

Rhead, a Penn State World Campus student, has a cognitive memory disorder that prevents her from remembering the meaning of material she reads. Although her diagnosis explained her troubles in school, Rhead had to work hard to not let the stigma of her disability shake her confidence and keep her from attending her dream school, Penn State.

“I have a learning disorder, but I'm not stupid,” said Rhead, 21. “That’s a big misconception people have when they hear about learning disabilities.”

After high school, Rhead knew that a traditional four-year university wasn’t the right fit for her, so she enrolled at a local community college in California. After two years, she began considering where to finish her degree.

Attending Penn State had always been a dream for Rhead, but due to her learning disability, she was hesitant to apply to a school with campuses in a state across the country.

Rhead remembered a high school counselor’s advice to her: “No matter how you learn, or your grades, it doesn't hurt to try.” So, when Rhead found out she could learn online through Penn State World Campus, she knew she had to give it a shot.

Just a few weeks after applying, Rhead received her Penn State acceptance letter in the mail.

“It was a monumental moment for me,” said Rhead, recounting how proud she was. “It gave me a lot of extra confidence that I didn't have before.”

She started her first courses in August.

Rhead said she struggles with confidence and anxiety because of her disability. But after meeting other people with learning disabilities and openly discussing her struggles, she had an a-ha moment.

“I realized that this is who I am, and I have to learn how to deal with it in the most positive way possible,” said Rhead. “I realized that it is a part of me, but it doesn't define me.”

Rhead said she’s learned to accept that her learning disability will always affect her, but she’s also learned important strategies to overcome the daily struggles. Rhead said she relies on creating lists, using planners and voice memos, and the help of her friends and family to make sure she gets things done.

Throughout her school years, Rhead has relied on the understanding and support of teachers and advisers to help her succeed in her classes. She said this has remained true at World Campus.

Rhead said her disability specialist, Maggie Kwok, is her “guardian angel.” Kwok created a document for Rhead to share with her instructors explaining her disability and the special accommodations she needs for her courses, such as extra time on quizzes and exams and the use of flashcards.

Rhead is in her first semester at World Campus and is majoring in political science. She expects to graduate in the spring of 2021 but acknowledged that it may take her more than two years to finish her degree. That hasn’t stopped her from planning for her future, though.

Politics and government are a passion of Rhead’s, and she said she won’t let her disability stop her from accomplishing her dream of attending law school and possibly working as a lobbyist.

“I still have my struggles, but I’ve come so far, so why would I stop now?” she said.

Rhead dedicates most of her time to her full course load, and she is thankful for her time at Penn State and everyone who has supported her along the way.

“My experience at World Campus has been really positive,” said Rhead. “It’s the best decision that I've made for myself in a long time.”

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December 12, 2023 / 8:00 pm (EST) 9:00 pm (EST)