In her academic pursuits, Melissa Meade, has studied communication, learned a second language and examined how the brain processes language.
As a result, she had a pretty good idea why she lost the ability to speak after a series of strokes in 2007 at just 30 years old.
In spite of the brain trauma she suffered, Meade is now working toward her doctoral degree in media and communication from the Temple University School of Media and Communication.
The irony of the endeavor isn’t lost on her.
“They experience of losing all ability to communicate brings a very humbling aspect to the idea of communication and the science behind it,” she says.
Meade had already been accepted into the PhD program at the time of her strokes. But with months of therapy ahead of her, coupled with the death of her father, she chose to defer entry by a year. As those 12 months wound down, she decided to jump into the program, rather than lose her status as an admitted student.
“It was a very intense time of health and emotional [strife]. It didn’t seem like a good time for a PhD,” she says. “I don’t know when there is a good time for it, but certainly, that seemed about the worst.”
In the years since, Meade, a first-generation college student from Frackville, Pa., has flourished at SMC.
She has progressed to PhD candidacy and is now focused on her dissertation, which uses ethnographic methods and media analysis to examine the relationship between deindustrialization, ethnic relations and conflict in her native Anthracite Coal Region.
The new normal
Obtaining the highest degree in one’s field is no small feat and the obstacles Meade faces in her education are making her achievements that much more impressive.
While her ability to speak is nearly as good as it was prior to the strokes, she still makes hundreds of adjustments each day to her old routine. Meade sits at the front of the classroom to better understand her instructors. Note-taking has become harder, in that her handwriting, once clear, has become difficult to read. She still faces comprehension issues with numbers and spelling.
“You would be surprised how many times a day people spell things to you,” she says.
One of the more mysterious effects of the strokes showed its face the first time Meade went to the pharmacist to fill a prescription. When it came time to pay, she realized that she understood what money was, but didn’t recognize it. She had to relearn what each denomination looks like and how to count it.
Meade firmly believes that all of her struggles have made her a better teacher.
“When I have students who have documented disabilities, I understand they may need the extra time, or need to be in a space that doesn’t have as many distractions,” she says.
And it hasn’t slowed down her academic success. Meade boasts a 3.95 GPA and has published one paper, with two more on the way. She has traveled the world to present at communication’s top academic conferences.
“Melissa is a stellar theoretician,” says Nancy Morris, her dissertation advisor and a professor of media studies and production. “She is incredibly good at probing deeply and applying theory in creative and innovative ways.”
This fall, Meade received a scholarship from the Mayor’s Commission on People with Disabilities. At the award ceremony, Meade was impressed with the diversity among the winners, since it showed all different faces of disability.
“Like any category, there’s nothing really unifying at its core unless we make it that way,” she says.
Meade generally doesn’t bring her disability to the forefront, but hopes to integrate it in her future teaching and research. A fluent Spanish speaker, she hopes to write a paper (“in all of my spare time,” she jokes) on how the bilingual brain reacts to and recovers from speech aphasia. She has already integrated disability studies into her classes. In several courses she taught, she discussed whether disabled television characters should be played by actors without disabilities and she asked students to critically evaluate representations of disability in media.
“I’ve found it challenging to communicate the realities of my disability to colleagues and professors without making my disability too publicly central to my daily life and aspirations,” she says. “This balancing act is one that I continue to calibrate as I progress in my career.”