“At mile 20, I thought I was dead. At mile 22, I wished I was dead. At mile 24, I knew I was dead. At mile 26.2, I realized I’d become too tough to kill.” Unknown Marathoner
I’ve always admired marathoners – and my daughter is no exception. Admittedly, hers wasn’t one contested on the streets of New York City (well, part of it was!) or in Boston’s Back Bay, but I can assure you, as one who spectated most of the forty-two thousand three hundred meters, it was every bit as grueling, every bit as challenging, every bit as dramatic, required every bit as much resiliency and courage – and, when all is finally said and done, I suspect will be every bit as satisfying and rewarding as the “real” thing. Life is like that, especially for those who are challenged/called to experience it fully. My only hope is that one day, Ashley will reflect on her “race” with the same perspective that many marathoners before her have reflected on their own: “You need to look back, not just at the people who are running behind you, but especially at those who didn’t run at all and never will; those who started training for the race, but didn’t carry through; those who got to the starting line, but never made it to the finish line; and those who once may have raced better than you, but now no longer run at all. You’re still here. You can take considerable pride in that. Look at all the people you’ve outlasted.” Joe Henderson.
May 16, 2012
Donna E. Shalala, Ph.D., President
University of Miami
Coral Gables, FL 33146
Re: Ashley Blackwell
Dear President Shalala,
Last Friday, our 24 year-old daughter, Ashley graduated from the College of Arts and Sciences with a Major in Psychology and a Minor in Film. Like most parents, our hearts were filled with a sense of pride and joy. However, as Ashley took those final few steps toward her diploma and your outstretched hand of congratulations, it occurred to me that my wife and I were the only two people among the thousands of students, professors, honorees, administrators and loved ones packed into the Bank United Center, who knew, let alone fully appreciated, the pain and heartache Ashley had to endure and the considerable, at times, life-threatening obstacles she had to overcome to achieve this important milestone in her young life. I feel compelled to share that story with you today so that you will better understand the resiliency of spirit, perseverance, immeasurable courage and hard work it took for Ashley to disprove doctors who, on more than one occasion, cautioned us that she might not live to see her 21st birthday and almost certainly not graduate from college – and my desire to give back to the University in an effort to honor her.
It would be a considerable understatement to say that Ashley’s college experience bore little resemblance to the joy-filled one that Lexi Heller, so enthusiastically and eloquently described in her Student Address, though she had every reason to believe it would when she began her freshman year as a Presidential Scholar at the University of Southern California in the fall of 2006. Indeed, by all objective measures, Ashley seemed to have the world on a string. She was a National Merit Scholarship Finalist; an AP Scholar of Distinction, having earned 4’s and 5’s on several AP exams; an accomplished (four time All-State) choralist at Gulliver Preparatory School, who, with her choral mates in the Miami Children’s Chorus, had the privilege of performing all over the world and at Carnegie Hall; an aspiring actress, whose resume included parts in two motion pictures before the end of her senior year in high school; a prolific creative writer of plays, poetry and short stories; a competitive equestrian; and a co-founder, with several high school friends, of a local theater group, Rearview Mirror Productions, who wrote and performed their own original plays.
And then, before the ink had dried on her first semester “report card” at USC, Ashley was stricken with an unusually acute and virulent onset of anorexia nervosa, an insidious and powerful disease, which, by some estimates, afflicts nearly 15 million women in the United States and, disturbingly, has a nearly twenty percent (20%) mortality rate. By the time my wife and I became aware of the severity of the situation Ashley was in the death grip of the disease and well on her way to starving herself to death. She spent the next two months at the UCLA Medical Center, which, despite her best efforts to keep up with her studies, ultimately forced her to take a medical withdrawal from her spring classes. The 2½ years that followed are a blur of hospital emergency rooms, doctors’ offices, in and outpatient treatment programs, nasal feeding tubes, etc. Ashley returned to school – at NYU’s Tisch School of the Performing Arts – in the fall of 2008, where she relapsed and was required to spend nearly six (6) weeks at a residential in-patient facility in Florida. Somewhat remarkably, though discharged just a few short weeks prior to her mid-term exams, Ashley still managed to earn a 3.3 GPA for the semester.
Ultimately (i.e., in the spring of 2010), Ashley enrolled at the University of Miami, so that she could be closer to the medical care she required and the support of family and friends, principally my wife and I. Initially, things improved. However, as is often the case with those suffering from an eating disorder, particularly one as severe as the one Ashley has battled, she took another step back very late in her first semester at UM (i.e., in April, 2010), which resulted in her again having to seek in-patient treatment for almost two (2) months. Fortunately, through a considerable amount of hard work and the compassion and understanding of her professors, Ashley was able to complete her course work that semester (and in the semesters that followed) and, along the way, earn what, by any standards, let alone given the life circumstances she endured was a remarkable 3.5+ cumulative GPA. I only wish there had been a way for her classmates and others who were part of last Friday’s graduation celebration to have known and, perhaps, in knowing been inspired by the magnitude of that accomplishment, which brings me to the second reason for this letter.
I’d like to make a recommendation that I hope will have a profound and lasting impact on the lives of students like Ashley and, as importantly, on the lives of the other members of future graduating classes – and their loved ones. I believe the U should establish an award given to a member of each year’s graduating class who has overcome significant adversity in earning their degree and that it should make room in the Commencement Program for that individual to take the podium and share their story. The recipient of the award could be selected by a panel of students, teachers and/or administrators from a list of “nominees” submitted by students, teachers and/or parents – submissions that include a brief summary of the nominee’s background and their “journey” to achieving their degree. In my mind, such an award would be the academic equivalent of the “Comeback Player of the Year Award” that has become an integral and much anticipated part of the professional sports landscape. In fact, if the U is inclined to adopt this idea, I would be more than happy to commit to reimbursing the cost of the plaque used to honor that student for the next five years, as a way of honoring my own daughter’s “comeback” and the compassion and understanding she received from countless professors and administrators and classmates at USC, NYU and the U along the way.
I look forward to hearing from you and appreciate your consideration.
Donald A. Blackwell