In the Face of Epilepsy and a Learning Disability, Olivia Marshall ’22 Puts Will.Power. in Action

When Olivia Marshall was a child, educators told her parents she would never learn how to read or write. She had epilepsy, and at times, was experiencing more than 250 seizures a day. “Seizures really mess up the brain, sometimes to the point of memory loss, and some seizures will just wipe your brain clean so you have to relearn different skills,” Olivia explains. She had to relearn how to walk and talk at a young age, and was resuscitated twice after especially strong seizures.

This month, at 31 years old, Olivia is graduating with a bachelor’s degree in communication from William Paterson University, along with minors in disability studies and anthropology. She proudly wears her Class of 2022 ring, set with an orange stone—the school color—and looks forward to taking photos on campus in her cap and gown alongside her mother, WP nursing professor Brenda Marshall, EdD.

Olivia, who lives with her family in Wayne, New Jersey, says her reading and writing were at a first-grade level in ninth grade. She transferred to a private school for students with learning disabilities—The Craig School, currently based in Montville, New Jersey—and, in her four years there, soared from a first-grade level of reading and writing to a twelfth-grade level, and earned her high school diploma.

She went on to a vocational independence program to learn daily skills such as how to take her epilepsy medication without assistance, independently travel on buses and trains, and work a job, and then she spent two years at Beacon College in Florida—a college for students with learning disabilities, ADHD, and other learning differences.

In 2016, Olivia decided she wanted to apply to WP—an institution where she felt comfortable, as she had often visited campus with her mom for Take Your Children to Work Day or when she didn’t feel well enough to go to school. “I wasn’t allowed to be home by myself because of my epilepsy, so my mom would bring me to work and I would wait in her office while she taught,” she explains. 

She was accepted at WP as a transfer student, and little by little, through participation in civic engagement events hosted by the Office of Campus Activities, Service and Leadership (CASL), a couple of switched majors, a job in the campus bookstore, and then a job on the student safety patrol, she found her niche as a William Paterson Pioneer.

An alternative spring break trip, where student-volunteers spend several overnights at Camp Linwood MacDonald, Olivia says, was especially meaningful because it forced her to socialize more with her new peers. Seeing the positive effect such events had on Olivia, CASL staff started signing her up for civic engagement activities they thought she’d enjoy. As Olivia would be out on her regular walk around campus, they’d call out to her and say, “Get on the bus!”

“I’d ask, ‘What am I getting on the bus for,’” Olivia explains, laughing. She’d crack a joke about how they were lucky she happened to be walking by, and then she’d happily get on the bus and volunteer in the event of that day, such as Habitat for Humanity home builds in nearby Paterson, New Jersey. “It was a very nice experience,” she says.

Olivia’s biggest takeaway from WP, and especially through her coursework in disability studies, is that people with learning disabilities can accomplish the same things as everyone else, so long as they work at their own pace. It’s a message she hopes to spread as a teacher someday, as she wants to help other students with learning disabilities realize their full potential.