Changing Life for the Better (Super Powers From Super Alumni)

Each fall students arrive on campus with unique strengths and abilities. Like a high-functioning team, the diversity of perspectives and strengths create a better place to live and grow. Three Central College alumni share their experiences and ways they personally are changing the world.

Unheard of Accommodations

Polly Adam Brekke ’91Polly Adam Brekke ’91 of Des Moines, Iowa, arrived at Central as a deaf student in 1987.

“I am thankful for Central taking me at a time when no other university understood their responsibility to provide accommodations for individuals with disabilities,” Brekke says.

In high school, she had written to over 25 colleges explaining her deafness and asking for accommodations. Central was the only one who wrote back saying they would work with her to get the accommodations she needed.

“I met many wonderful people at Central. Sandy Koon Scotton ’91 helped me learn that I had a right to know what other people were saying around me. I remember standing in line as a first-year student with Sandy, waiting for the cafeteria and everyone was talking. Sandy was behind me. She asked me if I could hear what they were saying, I said no. I could hear talking but had no idea what was being said anywhere by anyone. She then started to tell me what people standing near us were talking about. I told her it was OK, and that I was used to not knowing and living without that info. She then said that wasn’t right and if she could hear it, I should know what was being said, too. I have never forgotten that comment and her kindness,” Brekke says.

Continuing Education

Brekke had planned a career in law but after taking a few psych courses at Central, she became intrigued with the field of psychology.

“I graduated with a B.A. from Central in psychology but needed skills and training, so I went to Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., to earn my advanced degrees in school psychology,” Brekke says.

Gallaudet offers a specialist degree program in school psychology with a subspecialization in deafness. Brekke proceeded to the University of Northern Iowa for a Doctor of Education degree in inclusive leadership.

While at Gallaudet University, she was surrounded by visually accessible communication via sign language and began to really understand the value of incidental information in social conversations.

“Since then, I have resolved never to let another deaf or hard-of-hearing person allow themselves to be deprived of spoken information by not having access to communication, and I work to always ensure there is communication access for the deaf and/or hard-of-hearing individual, especially of the visual type such as sign language,” Brekke says.

Past Reflections

Though Central’s administration was wonderful to work with, and Brekke made many friends during her time at Central, she wishes she had advocated for having a sign language interpreter for her classes.

“I relied on speechreading and reading the textbooks for my primary information source for my classes. I made arrangements with the professors to be tested only over the contents of the books, instead of the spoken instructional information in class, as that was not a reliable source of information for me.

“Speechreading is a guessing game, at best, and there are many nuances, including mouth movements being small, obscured by mustaches, being of a different speaking nationality, saying unfamiliar names or words, being too far away or looking away or having their back to the class, which makes it difficult to guess what is being stated,” Brekke says. “Not to mention that you can only speech-read one person at a time, so working with two or more people in group settings was not going to be an effective means of communication access at all. Today, a sign language interpreter can capture these spoken dialogues and the access would be effortless and equitable.”

In working with Student Support Services, Brekke advocated for assistance in her dormitory. SSS assisted by ensuring her living accommodations had a fire alarm accessible via light and vibrating bed alarm, visual door knocker and TTY phone, which is text-based telecommunications for the deaf, in her room in one of Central’s residence halls.

Relentless Pursuit

Since then, Brekke has advocated for persons who are deaf or hard of hearing in Iowa’s largest school district.

“I worked as a school psychologist in Des Moines Public Schools, eventually becoming consultant, dean of students and now deaf education coordinator,” Brekke says. “I also teach American Sign Language and Deaf Culture at Drake University in the evenings.

“I don’t give up and I work relentlessly to solve something. I use every resource possible to problem-solve issues. Every challenge is an opportunity for growth and awareness, and I always endeavor to do the very best I can.”

As America has broadened its acceptance of people with disabilities, Brekke encourages the Central family to support providing interpreting and captioning access for individuals who are deaf and/or hard of hearing in all settings: public, employment, recreation, voluntary and social.

“Deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals have incredible perspectives, cultural knowledge and life experiences to share with others,” Brekke says. “The only barrier is the ease of communication access with each other. Don’t let that be a barrier. Learn ASL, write, get an interpreter, make an effort to be inclusive as best as you can, and you will be rewarded abundantly with their gratitude and gifts of life perspectives.”

 

Defining Oneself

For Leo Bird ’14, his strength is storytelling with pictures drawn from his Central experience. You can catch Bird at open mics in Des Moines. On stage, this is what you might hear from Bird.

“I ought to introduce myself. I am a live storyteller who uses drawings as a visual aid. I tell true stories about fitting in, building talent, character and autism. I have autism.”

Bird explains, “I started writing stories in 2013, discovered the open mic scene in Des Moines in 2018, incorporated drawings in 2019 and won second place three times in 2019 with sets about what patience is, what posts are appropriate for Facebook and playing with the kids who are alone.”

In 2021, a self-portrait drawing was accepted for display at the Iowa State Fair. He also performed at the Clash of Comics at the Funny Bone. The Des Moines Public Library has displayed 17 of his drawings, and he received invitations to five invitation-only art shows. By April 2022, Bird was in the line-up when Comedy DSM presented “Stand-up Comedy Night for a Cause.”

Bird has been invited to exhibit his art at the Octagon in Ames, Iowa, from May 22 to June 17, 2023. His art will be on display along with other artists who have autism.

“People have said that I am a clean comic and that my stories are uplifting. I’m not afraid to show my vulnerability,” Bird says. “Audiences say that they like how my stories are positive or how it makes them feel like a better person.”

College Life

Bird majored in actuarial science and had a minor in physics at Central.

“I got into actuarial science because I was a year ahead in math, and I’m good at it,” he says with a smile.

Bird learned that a lot of the challenges he faced in college were not unique to Central.

“I’ve talked to some people who went to a different school, and they faced the same thing that I did like the overwhelming dormitories. I just spent a lot of the time in my own dorm room,” Bird reflects. “Writing about my past has helped me realize the things I could have done differently in college. I think one of my regrets was that I wasn’t more aggressive in pursuing relationships with like-minded people.”

Pat Kitzman, former director of the career center at Central, asked Bird what his greatest weakness was.

“I said, ‘Well, I have autism, but I have an idea for a story that could teach people about it.’ She suggested that I talk to the special education classes where people are studying to work with students with disabilities. People really liked it,” Bird says.

In an interview for an internship while in college, the interviewer suggested to Bird that he could be somebody who educates people about autism. He spoke to education students in a class led by Esther Streed, professor emerita of education.

“I thought I could do that by telling a true story. I learned storytelling techniques through a writing short stories class taught by Arthur Johnson (professor emeritus of English, who taught at Central for 46 years). So, I worked on it. ‘The Words He Cannot Say’ is a graphic memoir I wrote about fitting in, building talent and character. I had George Clark ’91, (former assistant director of counseling and adjunct instructor of sociology) preview my paper. It talks about times when I was alone, when I had a lot of friends, when I was successful and when I was not. I can write and talk about stuff that other people would not feel comfortable talking about,” Bird says.

Bird continued to edit the memoir through a website called Critique Circle. One story called ‘Fitting In’ generated a lot of positive buzz on the website. “People could really relate to it — they knew what it felt like to fit in,” Bird explains.

Writing From the Heart

Bird started as a novelist, and he was trying to find ways to put himself out there.

“I joined a writers workshop when I moved to Des Moines at the Des Moines Public Library,” Bird says. “One time they said there was an open mic for reading poetry. I did a Google search for open mics. I found an open mic at Vaudeville Mews (which is now closed). Most of the performers were rappers. The only comedian there told me about the open mic out at Lefty’s. I convinced some coworkers to come and watch me perform. People were amazed by my public speaking skills. I think that my talent of singing ‘Love Shack’ by the B-52s in college prepared me for stand up.”

The best writing arguably comes from an honest place where truth meets actionability.

“I really write more to support a cause,” Bird says. “The stuff I talk about in my comedy is all true. I might start with a thought that someone said or an idea I want to explore. One example: I was searching for inspiration and Googled ‘4.0 students.’ I got a list of articles saying that grades rarely measure social and emotional intelligence and teamwork, leadership and creativity skills. This led to a set. The set I’m going to do next time is about two people who helped me fit in in eighth grade.”

Leo Bird ’14 is defining his passion for storytelling with pictures drawn from his Central experiences. Pictured above is a drawing representing residents halls on campus.

Leo Bird ’14 is defining his passion for storytelling with pictures drawn from his Central experiences. Pictured above is a drawing representing residence halls on campus.

Inspired by Art

Bird has the original drawing that inspired him to use art in his stand-up storytelling.

“I just casually threw a drawing in there. That was the funniest part of the set. As a comedian, I just tried to make similar jokes that were funny. I decided to experiment by making drawings for my other sets. It’s gotten a lot of positive responses. What makes it so appealing is that most people don’t expect a comedian or storyteller to bring a drawing pad on stage,” Bird says.

Bird uses real-time reactions to his stories to inform his writing.

“I’ve learned from people reacting to my stories. Before I started writing, I used to think that everybody else had it easy fitting in. But now I know that’s not the case,” Bird says. “I know that many other people face the same challenges that I do.

“I’m learning that some of my fears are more common amongst neurotypical as well as people who don’t have autism. They face some of the same challenges that I do. One fear that I do have is that if someone knew that I had autism, it might cause them to take me less seriously, especially if they saw me acting somewhat unusual,” Bird says.

Autism Is Not Equal to Identity

As a person with autism, Bird doesn’t want it to become his only identifier.

“I don’t want my autism to define who I am. There’s a debate in the autism community about whether people should use people-first language or identity-first language. People-first language is when you say people with autism, and I prefer that view,” he says. “It allows me to let autism be one part of who I am, and I can be more than just having autism.

“I have learned that some of the personality phrases I thought were related to having autism are not related to having autism, which is why my writing, ‘The Words He Cannot Say,’ is losing the autism theme. The identity-first language, saying autistic people, makes autism the defining characteristic of a person. Some people with autism prefer identity-first language because they feel like it’s an integral part of who they are. And that people-first language leaves it behind.”

He also has a few suggestions for students thinking about Central.

“Academic clubs are not for nerds; doing more homework is not for nerds,” he says. “Be kind to everyone, have an open mind and don’t be afraid to change your mind. Finally, colleges have a lot more to offer you than you might expect.”

Bird emphasizes, “Part of one’s happiness in college is their own responsibility. They need to take steps to improve their character and be self-aware.”

Love To Help

Nancy Kroese, director of Student Support Services and disability service coordinator, worked with Bird during his four years at Central.

“When Leo began at Central, he was so shy and reserved. He would come in and talk with us about accommodations but was so shy he didn’t look me in the face and looked at the wall. By the time he was a junior, he would come in and visit with us. We saw him really grow and mature while he was here. He just became so much more personable and willing to seek help, willing to seek us out and willing to make friends at that point. When I would ask him what he wanted to do, he always said ‘I want to be a motivational speaker. I want to help other people who have difficulties,’” Kroese says. “Leo is doing what he always wanted to do. I’m not surprised.”

Students demand greater inclusion, and they absolutely have the right. At institutions of higher education, students should expect free expression, access to engaging and mind-expanding classrooms and faculty, safe spaces and compassion and support from cohorts.

Chevy Freiburger, vice president for enrollment management and dean of admission, explains that Central admits students on specific criteria — academic performance, overall GPA, progression of coursework, strength of curriculum and meeting recommended coursework.

“We don’t strengthen or lessen our criteria for admission based on accommodations. Central students are admitted based on their academic merits. We have confidence that an admitted student has the academic background to be successful,” Freiburger says. “Students choose Central because it is challenging with a rigorous curriculum, but we are going to get students resources that will help them here, such as connecting them with Student Support Services and tutoring, which all students should take advantage of. It’s also the community, the strong relationships, the individual care and the compassion, which make Central an excellent place for students with disabilities.”

Kroese explains the role of student support services is to meet with students who would like accommodations who have a documented disability. This past year, the department served 100 students with documented disabilities who needed various levels of accommodations.

“I think that’s central to the entire campus. I’ve worked with so many professors and they really do care about the students. They really do want to see the students be successful and help the students find their best selves. Central is a place for them to find what they really want to do in life, what their strengths are and how they want to go forth,” Kroese says.

 

Brad DiLeo ’22 broke Central’s dance marathon record for fundraising. His smile and warm heart helped him secure more than $8,600.

Brad DiLeo ’22 broke Central’s Dance Marathon record for fundraising. His smile and warm heart helped him secure more than $8,600.

Shining the Light

Brad DiLeo ’22 has the superpower of positivity and loves to talk with people. Once he meets you on campus, he will remember your name.

“I’m unique because I think I can have an emotional connection with faculty, staff and students. I think I am that bright light shining around campus,” DiLeo shares. “I would say my strength is to bring the energy and positivity to campus events. I know how to get people hyped up. I can tell when someone is not having a good day and how to make them have a better day. Plus, I can sense the vibe of what campus is feeling. I have a great memory and know everybody’s name.”

As a neurodiverse student, DiLeo has a warm personality that makes others feel welcomed. A legacy student through his uncle, Tom Riek ’82, DiLeo arrived at Central originally planning to be an elementary education major and to play tennis. His uncle thought Central would be a good fit for DiLeo. Though he checked out other colleges, the tipping point for DiLeo choosing Central was the community.

“I got to meet the tennis team on my tour and really felt welcomed,” he says. “And the campus was beautiful.” After four years at Central, he truly had an influence on the campus community. During his senior year, DiLeo set a Central fundraising record for Dance Marathon. He raised $8,682.60 exceeding his high goal of $7,500. The annual Dance Marathon supports the University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital in Iowa City.

“We will have a big void to fill next year after Brad graduates, both in personality, passion and also in fundraising,” says Tammy Strawser, faculty sponsor for Central’s Dance Marathon.

Passion for People

DiLeo has a passion for events, so he shifted majors to communication studies. He worked in the offices of advancement, student development and student support services.

“Central has prepared me to think differently about the acceptance of others. Everybody is different and people think differently. They have their opinions, which may not be like mine. Central helped me learn to get things done and with organization — using a planner, making sure everything is ready and not being late — taking ownership,” DiLeo says. “Everybody makes mistakes. It’s OK if you make mistakes but learn from those mistakes.”

DiLeo credits the SSS department with his success at Central, saying, “They go above and beyond. They like to help students and get them engaged with other students by hosting events within the program. They want students to be part of the community. I took their ICS classes and learned what my strengths were and what motivates me. My strengths were that I can talk to anyone, positivity, outgoing, kind, friendly and a few others. I didn’t know I had those strengths!”

“We talked about growth, mindset and motivation. The SSS staff helped by telling me to keep on pushing even though I was struggling sometimes. They believed in me, and so did my parents. With their support, I was able to keep motivated, and even though I had to take some hard classes, they were willing to help find a tutor who helped me with these classes to succeed. It’s a small campus and I know everybody by name — faculty, staff, students and coaches. I talked to everybody and I’m just a joyful person.”

In spring 2022, DiLeo received the Unsung Hero Award, given through the student development office. After graduation in May 2022, DiLeo says, “Central is a great place to go to college because the people are welcoming. I’m glad that I came to Central and got to make an impact through Dance Marathon and through all the campus activities and student involvement. Central has a special place in my heart because of Tulip Time, all the traditions and all the things that I’ve done here.”

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