Alan Reno is no stranger to overcoming odds.
Reno has spastic quadriplegia cerebral palsy, the neurological disorder's most severe form. He's used a wheelchair since age 3, and nothing has slowed his educational pursuits.
“I wanted a life of independence. That’s part of the reason that I’m at CMU.” — Alan Reno, MBA graduate
Reno was among the nearly 600 students who received a master's degree from Central Michigan University at Saturday's commencement.
"I wanted a life of independence. That's part of the reason that I'm at CMU," Reno said before graduating. "I wanted to get a master's degree and prove myself to others that just because I'm disabled doesn't mean I can't go out and get a quality education."
His journey to graduate school had its obstacles. In the U.S., adults with disabilities are less likely to obtain a bachelor's degree or higher than their nondisabled peers. Finding reliable transportation, enlisting helpers and having to be his own advocate for accommodations are just a few examples of what Reno faced to get his education.
But he didn't do it alone. Parents Brian and Betty Reno live with him and supported his studies.
And then there's Roxie, a 9-year-old black lab mix trained by the nonprofit organization Paws with a Cause to be his service animal. Roxie is trained to do tasks like open doors, remove outerwear, turn on lights, fetch the phone and retrieve drinks from the fridge.
"Our bond is inseparable," Reno said. "She is essentially my right hand."
Alan received his undergraduate degree from Saginaw Valley State University. Afterward, he began looking at colleges that offered fully online graduate programs and were close enough to his home in Midland, Michigan.
His interactions with CMU's New Student Services team persuaded him that the university was exactly what he was looking for.
Building a community online
In a room full of CMU online services employees, mentioning Reno's name is an easy way to get a smile from the staff.
"Alan was just such a unique student," said Katie Bollman, assistant director of enrollment. "The collaboration and relationship-building that took place from start to finish with him was very special for us."
Many employees at CMU's online services come into contact with individual students only briefly. For instance, staff at New Student Services reach out to prospective students who ask for more information on university programs. After admission, however, those students move to other services like enrollment, advising and more.
But not Reno. Throughout his enrollment, he adopted members of the online support teams into his family, remaining in regular contact and sending them school updates, affirmations and pictures of Roxie. In return, the staff looked for opportunities to support him — like coordinating a tailgating experience for him at one of CMU's football games or sending Roxie a CMU dog collar.
"I've felt like I've been on campus this entire time even though I've been online," Reno said. "I'm proud to be a CMU Chippewa, because I feel so connected with the services and people there."
The CMU online services staff he came in contact with felt energized and proud to be part of Reno's academic journey.
"We are in a unique profession where we get to impact other people's lives daily, but we don't always get to see that," Bollman said. "Being able to support and cheer on a student throughout his time at CMU reinforced the idea that we are making a difference."
A number of the online staff volunteered to work during Reno's commencement so they could meet him in person.
"We would do this with any student," said Hannah Fitzpatrick, enrollment specialist. "CMU's online students tend to be more independent, but that isn't to say we wouldn't take the same time and care with them as we did with Alan if that is what they wanted."
A bright future
Alan received his Master's in Business Administration degree with a Value-Driven Organization Emphasis on Saturday and is preparing for a job search. He's looking forward to the future and has interest in working for The Dow Chemical Co., where he worked over the summer and gave a companywide presentation on Dow's Disability Employees Network.
"I've spent 21 years doing all this education, Reno said. "I'm thankful that homework is finally over, and I'm ready for the workforce."