Director of Westminster College’s Disability Services and Testing Center Karen Hicks’ expertise extends beyond the books when it comes to being an advocate for students with physical, learning and psychiatric disabilities.
Hicks said she has had a total of three concussions throughout her life and a broken ankle followed by three surgeries. She said she also experiences depression, anxiety and dyslexia.
Hicks began working at Westminster in January 2008 as an academic advisor for students. In March of 2016, she took on the role of coordinator of disability services and has remained in this department since.
Andrea Arango Londono, an office lead for the disability services and testing center, said that she appreciates working in the environment of the Disability Services Office.
“It is a safe working environment where you feel respected, considered and the communication is very clear,” Arango said. “Everything is set in place so there is a proper functioning of what we do and how we deliver our services.”
The Forum spoke with Hicks over the phone about her personal experiences with physical injuries as well as depression, anxiety and dyslexia. Her answers have been lightly edited for clarity and conciseness.
Q: Can you start by telling us about your personal experiences with injuries?
A: My first concussions were back in the 80s and unless you got hit in the head bad enough to pass out you really didn’t know what a concussion was. My first known concussion was when I was in a car accident in ‘87. I rolled a car three times and was thrown from the vehicle. My next one was when I broke my ankle and that was just a few years ago, but being stubborn I didn’t admit to anyone that I had one.
Q: How did your injuries affect your work?
A: As far as work goes, it’s that brain teaser, I don’t know if it’s the concussion or the anesthetic. After I broke my ankle it has been really hard. I have had three surgeries since 2005 and every time I have to go under anesthetic my cognitive abilities suffer at some point. The more tired I get the more stressed I get. The words are there, the thought patterns are there, but the ability to get from my brain to my mouth there is a struggle there or a disconnect. I don’t know if this all backtracks to concussions.
Q: Have your personal experiences with injuries influenced your work with the students?
A: I think I am probably a lot more empathetic than somebody who has not had a concussion and I think I understand timelines a little bit better. I’ll have a student who comes in who says ‘I’ve been told I’ll be better in a week.’ You have to explain that the brain is a muscle and it takes time. I think that is the part I can bring is that we’d all love to be cured in a week. We’d all love to be cured in two days, but the reality of life is that we all overextend. That one week that doctors usually give is you doing nothing. As a normal human, we can’t just sit still and do nothing.
Q: What do you want students to take away when they come to see you?
A: My goal when students come in here is to remind them that sure they can do things but they need to do them in finite amount of times, do them spread out and find ways to reduce screen time.
Q: What were the biggest lessons you have learned from your experiences?
A: I think the biggest thing that I have learned is be kind to yourself. That is something that I have really had to learn with my cognitive shortcomings as I’ve gotten older. You need to be kind to yourself and not beat yourself up because you have these conditions. I think with conditions, people need to understand that it’s okay that your brain works different than other people. That’s not a bad thing, you just have to learn how it works and work within that. Just because you might have a certain condition, doesn’t necessarily mean you had a weakness.