Kutztown University graduate found support during her college experience

May 13—Growing up in Collegeville, Maria Clark never thought all that much about college.

Her experience with education wasn't particularly enjoyable, she said. She didn't get particularly great grades and was sometimes bullied due to physical symptoms of her cystic fibrosis.

A genetic condition that causes a thick mucus that clogs certain organs such as the lungs, pancreas and intestines, cystic fibrosis used to make long-term planning seem a bit useless. When she was a kid, Clark explained, the life expectancy for someone with cystic fibrosis was only around 30 years.

"We didn't think I'd make it this far," the now 22-year-old said.

Medical advancements have increased the life expectancy of cystic fibrosis patients to anywhere from 50 to 80 years with proper treatment. And that development has meant Clark has a future to plan for.

So, she decided getting a college education would be a good idea. Of course, needing frequent medical treatment for her condition, she would have to go somewhere not too far from her Montgomery County home.

A visit to Kutztown University during her junior year of high school provided her with a perfect option.

"When I came to Kutztown I just felt like I was at home," she said. "I felt welcome, I knew it would be perfect. The atmosphere, the campus — everyone was just so friendly."

When Clark arrived on campus in the fall of 2020, she realized she had made the right choice. And this past weekend, she celebrated success there as a 2024 graduate.

Her college experience, Clark said, ended up being a much better and more supportive one than she previously had with education.

She made friends, she thrived academically (she made the dean's list twice) and she got involved in everything she could. She even took advantage of an opportunity to study abroad in the United Kingdom this past winter.

"With my cystic fibrosis, I had never traveled alone," she said, adding that despite her initial fears about being an ocean away from her doctors she loved the trip.

Clark joined the Delta Phi Epsilon sorority, help restart Kutztown's communications career club and worked as a barista at two on-campus coffee shops. She also became a motivational speaker, traveling around the region to share her story and educate people about cystic fibrosis.

To her surprise, unlike when she was younger, people were interested to learn about her condition. Her sorority sisters went a step further, holding fundraisers to benefit cystic fibrosis foundations that support the development of treatments and other research.

"Them doing those fundraisers could mean I might see another day," a clearly touched Clark said.

When it came to academics, Clark found her way to the communications department after brief stints as a film major and criminal justice major. The choice to pursue a communications degree was natural for her.

"I talk a lot," she said. "I've always been a yapper, I've always been a talker. So with communications, I've found my passion."

Clark said her dream is to become a television journalist, the kind that goes out into the community to do stories about the good things people are doing.

"I want to be a positive light for people," she said.

And perhaps, someday, she could even picture herself becoming a talk show host, she said.

"My friends and family, everyone who knows me, they say they see me as someone who could sit behind a desk and just talk," she said with a laugh.

Those dreams, she said, now feel like a real possibility. And that's largely in part to the time she spent at Kutztown.

"I believe Kutztown has shaped me into a better version of myself," she said. "The professors here saw something in me, they believed in me. When you have people who believe in you and see how successful you can be, it motivates you."

Clark has taken that motivation and put it to good use. That's why she'll be one of about 1,130 students to accept their degrees during Kutztown's commencement ceremony this weekend at the college's O'Pake Fieldhouse.

Speaking about a week before graduation, Clark said that moment will be a big one for her.

"It's going to be so many emotions — excitement, nervousness, sadness — it's a huge milestone," she said. "I'm just so excited my family can be there with me to celebrate it."