Rosanne Wong graduates tomorrow in triumph

Every Friday night in Orlando, Florida, Rosanne Wong used to lead the flag corps onto the football field, playing her school’s song on the saxophone as she marched in front. At centre field, the corps would halt then circle in formation around Wong while she twirled her baton in a grand flourish before the game. “It was a big thing,” remembers the York student, 11 years later. Those were the glory days – before a truck crushed the car she was driving and nearly crushed her.  

Tomorrow, the 29-year-old will taste a bit of glory once again as hundreds watch her cross the podium to receive her BA in social sciences. The degree was not in the math-based discipline she originally wanted, but after your brain has been “scrambled like eggs” you can’t always get what you want when you want it. 

Left: Rosanne Wong with her father Ray

Wong was always a whiz at math and science and dreamed of a brilliant career in computer science. Her marks were so good after Grade 12 that she won a full scholarship to a state college, making her Jamaican-born Canadian parents proud. Two short months after college started, they were holding vigil at her hospital bedside, praying she would come out of a coma. Their prayers were answered 10 days later when she wiggled her toes in response to her mother’s plea for a sign, then woke up. Her body was twisted out of shape though none of her bones were broken, half her face was paralyzed, her trachea had collapsed and she couldn’t write with her dominant right hand without excruciating pain. Wong spent the next year in hospital learning to swallow, breathe, talk and walk again. “She was like a newborn baby,” says her father Ray. 

Then she went back to school. In a wheelchair for the first six months, she navigated the halls and her books with help from her friends. It was tough. She struggled to retain what she read in her texts and taught herself to write with her left hand. Nevertheless, three years later, this indomitable young woman had earned a general associate of arts degree.  

By then, medical insurance rates had mounted so high that her parents could no longer afford to live in the US and returned to Canada with their three children. Determined to get the university degree she always wanted, Rosanne enrolled at York and tried to recapture her dream of a computer science career. Unwilling to accept what the neuropsychology assessments revealed – that her short-term memory was impaired and, worse, that the part of the brain that processes science and math was destroyed – she signed up for IT and psychology courses that required math, only to fail over and over. “I cried over that. It was an extremely emotional time for me. I didn’t want to give up. I wondered what else I could do.” 

In despair, she turned to Karen Swartz, the director of York’s Office for Persons with Disabilities. From Rosanne’s neuropsychological assessment, Swartz identified her strengths and weaknesses then plotted a strategy that would lead to success. Rosanne could not process algorithms but she could understand narrative, especially if she could relate to it. She could express herself verbally, do research on the Internet and write essays and tests – given extra time and a keyboard – with ease. “Essays I do fabulous at,” she brags. Once her professors understood her challenges and accommodated her, her marks shot into the stratosphere.  

Her dad Ray, now retired and a widower, is full of gratitude for the help Rosanne received from Swartz and her team. “They did an excellent job at identifying Rosanne’s strengths and weaknesses and helping her formulate a plan,” he says. “They met with professors to identify her shortfalls and arrange special accommodation like extensions for assignments and extra time to write exams on computers.” They also helped petition the Ontario Student Assistance Program for an exemption so that she qualified for a loan despite being a part-time student. 

After a while, Rosanne no longer needed a volunteer note taker to type lectures directly onto her laptop. “It is ridiculous crazy how fast I am. I am able to take lecture notes almost verbatim.” She began taking humanities courses and social sciences and, after seven years at York, graduates tomorrow with a BA in business and society, focusing on sociology.  

Rosanne hopes that the learning strategy Swartz developed for her, a person with short-term memory loss due to head injury, will benefit others who follow. She doesn’t plan to go back to school any time soon, but now she knows she can if she wants to.

In addition to York, Rosanne has found support and volunteered at Community Head Injury Resource Services (CHIRS) at Yonge and Finch. CHIRS travel-trained her, so she wouldn’t get lost when she took the TTC, and provided therapeutic counselling when she fell into a depression over the loss of her mother two years ago. Now, many at CHIRS look up to her. “I’ve showed them you can go on with life and earn a living,” she says. “I’ve overcome obstacles and have found some strengths and made use of them.” Ray envisions his daughter as a motivational speaker.

But Rosanne has other ideas. At a recent job fair on campus, major banks and corporations showed an interest in hiring the sociable 29-year-old and crackerjack researcher. Her typing skills could make her a perfect court stenographer. Whatever her future, her father – his daughter’s devoted chauffeur and caretaker – feels so confident she can live independently that he is leaving soon to study at a seminary in Jamaica. She will do fine, he says, “thanks to York” and “ad majorem dei gloriam” – the greater glory of God.

By Martha Tancock, YFile contributing writer