For Brian Schnelle, marching across the graduation stage to receive his college diploma was a bit more than the usual triumphant moment — it was the culmination of a full 12 years of hard work and perseverance at Trevecca Nazarene University in Tennessee.
“My favorite part about graduation was getting my degree. When I walked across the stage and grabbed my degree, I threw my hands up in the air,” Brian, a 31-year-old living with autism, tells Yahoo Lifestyle.
Being on the spectrum made school more difficult for the recent grad, but Brian has always been a voracious and eager learner — plus, he had a village of support, including his father, Jeff. Several times a week, he would drive Brian on the round trip from their home in Old Hickory to the campus of the small Christian university near downtown Nashville, about a 45-minute trek each way.
While he lives with his parents and cannot drive or care for himself, Brian’s motivation to obtain a college degree was all his own. “Twelve years is a long time to try and do something,” Jeff tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “It would have been easy to give up and say, ‘No, this is taking so long, this is so slow.’ But he didn't.”
A passion for learning
Jeff and his wife, Jane Schnelle, adopted Brian soon after they became his foster parents. And while they saw signs of potential developmental issues, a psychiatrist later confirmed their suspicions, diagnosing Brian with autism at the age of 7. “It was scary because we didn't know anything about it—neither my wife or I did,” says Jeff, adding that there was little exposure or understanding of their son’s condition when Brian was diagnosed in the 1990s.
“It doesn't matter what it’s called, but he had several learning and developmental issues to deal with,” he says. “There weren't many resources in Tennessee at the time, but we did our best to find what existed.”
Brian eventually enrolled at a special education program called Genesis Academy, a learning center in Nashville for children with learning and behavioral difficulties. Although Jeff and Jane knew little about their son’s diagnosis, their son’s love for learning was no match for his challenges.
“Brian has always been bright. He's always liked school. So that made things easier that he liked to learn,” Jeff, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “We weren't planning for college— we weren't sure what was next. But then he got through high school.” Before they knew it, Brian was in his senior year and asking about going to university. So his parents began looking at local colleges that could be a good fit for their son.
“I just wanted a chance to go to college. And Trevecca felt like the right place to get it,” says Brian. In high school, he loved sports and dreamed of working as an equipment manager for a team someday.
“Someone with a Master's or another college degree is more likely to last longer in a certain field than someone with a high school diploma,” Brian explains of his determination to get a college degree. “The more education that you have, then the longer you're likely to last.”
After speaking with several Trevecca administrators and admissions counselors, the university agreed to accept Brian on one condition: in order to graduate, Brian had to fulfill the same requirements as every other student.
Slowly and steady
In August of 2007, Brian began the slow, but steady journey towards achieving a degree in sports management. “We weren't really sure that this was going to work out. So we just let him pick classes that he thought were interesting instead of going the traditional route of doing your general education stuff,” says Jeff.
And while Brian would not take the traditional route to obtain his diploma, Jeff and Jane allowed him to do whatever it took to achieve his goal.
“If I had to start out with English and math or science, then I probably wouldn't have my degree,” Brian admits. “I took the classes backwards, but as long as it would get me my degree I stuck it out. I just wanted to take classes in a way that works for me.”
For the next 12 years, Brian would take two classes a semester. Jeff’s job as a regional information officer at Cigna allowed hm to drive his son to and from campus and sometimes even accompany his son to class, sitting in the back as his notetaker. Then Jeff would help Brian prioritize his time so that he could get through all the course material.
“I read all the material and I did all the homework. I did not waste a second,” Brian says. He would often break up his study sessions, sometimes doing one in the morning and another at night. “Some people crammed, but I'm not like that. I had a schedule. I had to take it one day at a time.”
Brian says he struggled the most with writing papers and essay questions on test. But even when the going got tough, Brian never took his eyes off the prize: graduation.
“Anytime I was studying for a test and I was getting ready to give up, I would think of graduation. I was focused on my graduation goal even during the hardest tests,” says Brian. “If I didn't get through it then I would never graduate, so I had to push through everything, hard or easy.”
Jeff jokes that Brian may be the “only guy in the history of college that's read everything that he's supposed to.” But Jeff says he’s proud of his son for doing whatever he needed to do to “muscle through it.”
“He would get more time to work on papers or was allowed to go to quiet places to take his test,” says Jeff. “But short of that, he did everything everyone else did.”
On May 4, Brian graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in sports management— with academic honors. After stepping down from the stage wearing a black cap and gown with a purple and white tassel, he ran to embrace his mother Jane in the bleachers.
“[Brian’s graduation] is a moment I’ll always cherish. That's always going to be with me: the pure joy he experienced on that day,” Jeff recalls. After accompanying Brian every step of the way in the long journey to this crowning moment, Jeff also sat with his son in the crowd of graduates at the commencement ceremony. “Frankly, I'm going to miss it myself. I'm going to miss the time that we spent there together on campus.”
While Brian and his family is thankful for the overwhelming “kindness and support” they received from faculty throughout his 12-year college venture, faculty members say he, in turn, has left an indelible mark on the university.
Congratulations to Brian Schnelle, a Tennessee student who graduated from @Trevecca this month. Brian has autism and has been taking college classes for 12 years. He inspired the university to create an award in his honor—the Brian Schnelle Perseverance Award.— Sen. Lamar Alexander (@SenAlexander) May 16, 2019
“The administration, faculty and staff of Trevecca Nazarene University are incredibly proud of Brian and his achievement... His perseverance, hard work and desire to excel despite what many might see as roadblocks is to be admired and applauded,” Trevecca University tells Yahoo Lifestyle in a statement. “We’re also deeply proud of the Trevecca faculty and staff members who have walked with Brian throughout his Trevecca career, embodying our core values as a University. Trevecca is honored to have played a small role in Brian’s story, and we can’t wait to see what the future holds for him!”
Jeff hopes that Brian’s success can inspire other individuals on the spectrum to continue working towards their goals, no matter what they may be. “It showed that we shouldn't underestimate what these guys on the spectrum can do. We hope that he can continue to be successful but that he can represent some hope for other people.”
Brian and his family are now exploring future opportunities for their son. While Brian is first taking a well-deserved break, he has one simple piece of advice for other people living with autism: “Don’t give up.”
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