SMC In Focus

True Grit

Maria Vasquez has been in a wheelchair all her life – but that did not stop her from being the first in her family to attend college. This SMC grad is “just like the rest of us, only five times better.”

Maria Vasquez has been in a wheelchair all her life. Born with severe cerebral palsy, her speech is slow and slurred. Her fingers can’t hold a pen or navigate a keyboard.

Yet these constraints haven’t stopped Maria, who is 46, from becoming the first in her family to go to college.

On June 26, she was one of eight Class of 2020 graduates spotlighted during SMC’s virtual commencement.

The honor, explains dean of enrollment services Esau Tovar, recognizes exceptional Corsairs who “have overcome significant obstacles in their lives and [whose] stories of tenacity serve as inspiration to everyone.”

Maria pretty much embodies that description.

“She’s a rock-star at our program,” says disability assistant Brian Van Norton, who together with disability specialist Carla Alvarado recommended her for the Graduate Stories recognition.

In fact, the Center for Students with Disabilities staff unanimously backed Maria’s nomination, calling her “a role model and a hero” and “arguably the most consistent, dedicated, and hardworking student that we have had the pleasure of assisting. She is a light to everyone she meets.” 

Very Strong and Very Humble

Brian has been Maria’s wingman since 2014, serving as her class notetaker and exam scribe in at least 10 courses.

“She was my first student in the program,” he says. “My first day on the job, I took notes for Maria. I believe it was an English 85 class.”

Right away, Brian was blown away by her command of technology. He watched in bewilderment as she composed email with her nose. Maria uses a customized iPad to peck out homework assignments, research papers, presentations and any other content she needs to produce.

“She’s very proficient, actually,” Brian says. “Not as fast as you’d be with two fingers, but she has adapted. It’s second nature to her.”

Which in no way diminishes the herculean scale of her efforts.

“When she’s typing a paper, she’s doing it six hours a day, for three or four days, until it’s done,” Brian says. “Because everything takes her much longer, she can only take a few classes at a time,” he adds.

As Brian got to know Maria better, he marveled at how much she had on her plate besides schoolwork: A husband and a teenage son, a household to run, friends, doctor’s appointments. She even found time to be a die-hard Dodgers fan.

“She’s just like the rest of us, only five times better,” Brian says. “She’s very strong and very humble.”

Brian and Maria have a special bond. “We love working together,” he says.. “It wasn’t work to me, actually. It was a joy and a pleasure, and it quickly evolved into an honor.”

They’re close in age, and Brian is himself a former nontraditional student, having graduated from Glendale Community College after ending his Marine service in 2008. He studied audio engineering at L.A. Film School before joining SMC’s Disabled Student Programs and Services.

in 2014. As a disabled veteran with reconstructed knees, Brian admires Maria’s fearlessness.

The halting cadence that makes her speech hard to understand never stopped Maria from stepping up in class. “She’d ask and answer questions—even in big lecture classes. She fully participated in group assignments. No intimidation whatsoever. None. She is hands-down one of the bravest people I have ever met.”

Coming from a former Marine Corporal, that’s quite an endorsement.

Finish What She Started

“I learned to be independent at a very early age,” says Maria, who grew up in the Fairfax district, the child of a garment worker and a furniture painter. By the time she reached high school, her five older siblings were adults. So every morning Maria went to school alone, maneuvering her motorized wheelchair to the bus stop and onto the wheelchair lift.  

Nowadays, she lives within walking distance (“it’s rolling distance for Maria,” Brian emphasizes) of Santa Monica College. Not long ago, her wheelchair lost power in the middle of a crosswalk on her way home from campus. As always, Maria managed the situation with calm, good-humored confidence.

Maria has always loved school. Graduating from Fairfax High with honors in 1993, she immediately enrolled at SMC, taking one course per semester to offset her severe physical limitations. By 1998, still far from earning a degree, she grew discouraged and took a break. “I wasn’t sure what the point was,” she recalls. “I lost hope.”

Then in 2000, she met her future husband, Antonio Saba, a construction worker. Soon, Maria became a mother and put higher education on the back shelf. It wasn’t until 2013, when their son, Antonio Jr., reached middle school, that Maria returned to SMC to finish what she’d started two decades earlier.

From a certificate program in early childhood education, she segued into the AA degree track in social welfare. Still taking a reduced course load, she paced herself to graduate with her son, a member of SaMo High’s Class of 2020.

Everything required extra effort.

Yet, Brian notes, “I never once heard her ask for any extension. She has a great work ethic. She is organized and stays on top of her assignments. She’s on campus. Focused. Everyday. Early, or on time. And all of this with a smile and a great attitude.”

Advocate for the Disabled

That doesn’t mean Maria is made of iron.

“Many days I had second thoughts—moments where I was going to throw in the towel,” she says. “But my condition has not kept me from following my dreams. My message to the next generation is to remind them to never give up. Accomplish your goals, no matter what life throws your way.”

Though Maria has no immediate plan to transfer, her ambition is to become a social worker advocating for the disabled. For now, she’s gunning for a human resources job with the City of Los Angeles.

Brian has no doubt that Maria will reach whatever goal she sets for herself. But he doesn’t think she needs a master’s in social work to make a difference in the world. She has already made a difference at SMC.

“I don’t think she understands the impact she has on other people—how they benefit from just being around her,” he says.  

Over the years as her class notetaker, Brian has witnessed “how other students and the professors learn from her and how important it is to have diversity in the classroom. Seeing what her life is, how much more evolved—emotionally, spiritually, intellectually—she has to be: it’s very humbling, motivational and inspirational.”


* * *