A smiling young man with glasses, short hair and a beard lies on his side at an archaeological site giving the thumbs up sign.

Preparing for College – Part 2

Carol Shrader, mother of four, two of whom have cerebral palsy.

[In the second installment of her moving three-part story, triplet and CP mom Carol Shrader describes her son Mason’s experience of finding independence as he left home for college for the very first time.]

When you’re a mama bear who has raised four children with very different needs, it’s instinctive to be a helicopter parent. But as I stood on the sidelines watching a college administrator empower my son Mason, I knew the time had come to take a backseat.

“Mason, I’ve heard what your mom thinks you need,” he remarked. “What support do YOU think you need to be successful?”

He may not have made my list of favorite people right then but, as Mason replied with his thoughts, I recognized he was encouraging my son to take charge and have a voice in his own support structure. He was also empowering me to hand over the controls. I could tell by Mason’s face that he was happy. I knew this was the place for him.

Mason was born with spastic diplegic CP, and while he is physically more independent than his brother Benjamin, who has spastic quadriplegia, he has a longer list of medical issues.

When my triplets’ college years arrived, our first hurdle was to find the proper support for our sons to sit for their SATs. I spent hours finding a test site that provided the accessible space we needed for the boys and would allow for scribes to help them write their answers. I filled out multiple forms to ensure the scribes would be permitted and assembled the required medical documentation.

With all the approvals in place, the first test date approached. But even with the best-laid plans, there were obstacles we could not anticipate. My trio was as prepared as I could help them be. They were ready. Then the school called the day before the exam. The scribes had decided they didn’t want to work that Saturday, and the school could not replace them. They would “try” to hire someone for the next test date. Claire took it that day, but Benjamin and Mason had to reschedule. They ended up taking the SAT twice and gained good scores. The relief would carry us through the college application process and all that it entailed.

Our college wish list consisted of schools with excellent access, a manageable student population, and programs of interest. We visited campuses all over the country. We toured schools in Philadelphia, Minneapolis, Chicago, and their more expansive geographic areas, and checked out small liberal arts colleges in California, Mississippi, and Arizona.

We saw great colleges with insufficient access and colleges with excellent access but seemingly a million students. In the end, all three of my triplets chose small liberal arts colleges that offered them an intimate learning environment.

Once Mason had secured his favorite college choice, I helped him put everything we thought he needed in place to live independently. While his campus was only 15 miles from our home, we had made a cross-country move just a few weeks before college started. We had to find Mason doctors to manage his cerebral palsy and his related high blood pressure caused by problems with one of his kidneys, as well as his ulcerative colitis. I had equipped him to talk to doctors himself, but I had failed to teach him to talk to pharmacists. We would have more than one tense mother and son discussion about refilling meds BEFORE they ran out. Equipping him to call in his prescription refills in time and pick them up before he missed a dose was a skill I had overlooked as I prepped him for college. The truth is you can’t predict everything, and you will always be problem-solving on the go.

Mason navigated campus with an electric scooter and his power sticks. Like most moms sending her first born to college, I worried a lot and followed all the campus social media, hoping to get a glimpse of him without nagging him to send me photos.

I was nervous about the electric scooter he took to navigate campus. What if it had negative connotations for him? There was no need to worry. It didn’t. When he joined a fraternity, the president made a point of climbing on the back of Mason’s scooter with the official flag. “We’re going in last!” the president enthused. Staff and students together nicknamed that scooter and were disappointed when rain the weekend of graduation prevented “Bocephus” from attending the swiftly organized indoor ceremony.

Mason threw himself into campus life, serving his fellow students as a resident assistant in the dorms. He was elected student body senator.

When Mason called home his needs varied from emotional to physical, to help with an essential decision like which bow tie matched which shirt. My personal favorite phone call was when he needed me to stop by campus to button the little tiny buttons on his dress shirt.

Mason’s college was not perfect from an accessibility standpoint – the sidewalks were in a deteriorated state, and navigating them in the scooter could be hazardous. The beautiful old buildings had elevators that broke down and didn’t work almost as often as they worked, but the administrators were committed to Mason and his needs.

Mason Shrader on an archeological dig in SpainThe professors recognized his abilities far exceeded his limitations and worked to maximize his opportunities. He thrived, even studying abroad on archaeological digs in the Yucatan of Mexico and off the coast of Barcelona, Spain. Mason worked hard and he had chosen a school with the heart necessary for his success.

He graduated Summa Cum Laude in four years with a major in Classics (Greek and Latin), a major in Anthropology, and a minor in Archaeology. His picture hangs on the wall of the student center as one of just four students in his graduating class chosen for the Hall of Fame. Mason earned this accolade because he took the heart his school poured into him and gave it back with dedication.

Today, Mason is finishing up a Master’s in Classics at Texas Tech University. Before the pandemic, he was living alone, on campus a thousand miles from home.

Whatever the problem, Mason has taken it in his stride. Despite living independently, fine motor skills are challenging, but we work out the solutions.

When he started to look like a hairy mountain man with unkempt hair, beard, and nails, we organized a reconnaissance day sending him on Uber rides around the city to find somewhere he could get his hair and beard cut plus a manicure and pedicure. Now Mason knows exactly which strip mall can serve all those needs and heads there every six weeks.

Mason has CP which has thrown some curveballs his way over the course of his life. But when he lectures, cerebral palsy is the last thing on his students’ minds. Recently, I had the opportunity to speak alongside Mason to a class of students working on their masters in special education. We were in fact, lecturing about CP and the impact these students would have as teachers. But when Mason started speaking about his archaeological research, the entire discussion shifted and the previously quiet class began raising their hands to ask questions. Even they, who were there specifically to discuss CP, had completely forgotten that Mason is affected by this challenge.

I can’t help beaming with pride.

(For more information on preparing for college, visit this resource developed by Carol Shrader from her experiences.)