Published: Sat May 15, 2004As Carolyn Wynacht walked across the stage to receive her college diploma from Tennessee Tech University on Saturday, she captured the feeling she’s been longing to experience for years.
“For one day, I just wanted to be me again,” said Wynacht.
To Wyancht, the “me” she remembers is an active woman, a single mother who raised five children and pursued a career as a medical technologist. That version of herself accomplished many difficult tasks and had even returned to college late in life to earn a biochemistry degree.
But an illness changed her reality and ambitions. Stricken with pulmonary fibrosis and reactive airway disease, she abandoned her pursuit of the biochemistry degree because she could no longer be exposed to substances found in the labs.
The diseases began to limit her other activities, making her hypersensitive to her environment and leaving her dependent on oxygen. Still, she longed to complete a college degree and chose to major in English.
More than one semester in the late 1990s she had to withdraw because of her health, however, against her doctor’s initial orders, she continue to pursue her education.
“Several of us in the English Department admired her desire, so we got together to brainstorm about how we could help Carolyn finish her degree,” said Alan Slotkin, a now retired TTU English professor.
“Our best idea was to let her try and attend class by phone,” he said. “We worked with our telecommunications office to set up a speaker phone that could be moved from classroom to classroom. We placed the phone at a student desk, sometimes including a picture of her, and interacted with her just as if she were in her seat.”
Until her first class by speaker phone in 2000, Wynacht wasn’t sure she’d ever finish a degree, even though she continued to receive tremendous support from English and history professors in particular who would allow her to use audiotapes and e-mails to hear lectures and submit assignments.
“The English Department held me up,” she said. “Before they came together to help me I was trying to do it on my own, contacting professors and setting up e-mails and audio tapes, anything to help me get through when I couldn’t come to campus.
“Possibly the choice I made to come back was not the most sensible or practical thing, but I had lost my profession and the normalcy that had been ‘me.’” she surmised. “I had simply lost everything and had nothing else to lose.”
Her adaptability to her illness, one that many times found her unable to sit up in bed where she listened to lectures by phone, was equally matched by professors who thought creatively when it came to including her in class.
“Another really amazing experience was the theater class I had where I used a camcorder to record my monologues and sent them for the class to watch,” Wynacht remembered. “That was an awesome experience that I was sure couldn't possibly work, but it worked great.”
Wynacht’s future plans include writing a collection of children’s stories and personal essays, and maybe even graduate school.
“I am walking across the stage today for me, but the whole thing is really not about me,” she said. “It is about TTU and the dedication of the faculty and staff who have enabled me to make it all happen.”