Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

Slow, Proud Steps for Wpu Graduate

Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

Slow, Proud Steps for Wpu Graduate

Article excerpt

She was the first student to take a seat at William Paterson University's graduation Wednesday and she traveled one of the hardest paths to get there.

Born with cerebral palsy in the Dominican Republic, Juana M. Ortiz was never able to go to school until she came to New Jersey at 15. Because she walks slowly, she was seated alone in the front row before her classmates paraded in. She can type with only one hand and, despite her strenuous efforts to enunciate, can be hard to understand.

But her enormous drive was on joyful display as she stepped carefully, with assistance, across the stage at the Izod Center in East Rutherford to get her diploma at age 40.

"I thought I would never be able to make it this far," she said before a ceremony granting bachelor's degrees to 2,446 students and master's degrees to 326. "I got support from my family and professors. I'm thankful to be in America. Here you can complete any dream as long as you try hard."

Her father Marino, a retired taxi driver, could not hold back tears as he described his pride. "Very happy," he said in stilted English. "Incredible."

Juana's mother, Luz, who used to cook and clean in a school kitchen, said the family taught Juana to read and write at home because there was no suitable school for her in the Dominican Republic. When they moved here, Juana went to the Passaic County Elks Cerebral Palsy Treatment Center in Clifton and then transferred to John F. Kennedy High School in Paterson, where she had a one-on- one aide.

Over time Juana became more independent, earning an associate's degree from Passaic County Community College and becoming a U.S. citizen. It took four years studying part time at William Paterson in Wayne to earn her bachelor's in communications and English. Homework that took other students hours could take her twice as long. The school gave her accommodations, including extra time on tests and a note-taker during class. Living on her own in Hawthorne, Juana commuted on the NJ Transit Access Link van for the disabled.

A frequent writer for campus publications, Juana hopes to work in communications. …

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