Ask Sam McCurry what led him to pursue a career in which he can help others, and you'll hear about Thomas.
In fifth grade, McCurry recalls, he spent time on the playground swings with Thomas, a student with special needs, and his paraprofessional. McCurry was told that Thomas wouldn't remember him — but he continued to spend time interacting with his classmate.
Later that year, at parent-teacher conferences, Thomas' parents came looking for McCurry. As it turns out, Thomas had been talking about the new friend he had made — and not about the paraprofessional who had been with him for years.
"I had spent enough time with Thomas to understand and relate to him," said McCurry, who grew up in Chaska, Minn., and now is a student at the University of Minnesota Duluth.
A few years later, at age 15, McCurry's life was turned upside down when doctors discovered he had a brain tumor called an optic glioma. Throughout the duration of 2005, McCurry went through four brain surgeries and various rounds of radiation.
McCurry's vision started to deteriorate. Now 27, he is completely blind in his right eye and says the vision in his left eye is like looking out of a straw.
Losing his vision, McCurry says, cemented the idea that had started with Thomas — the idea that he was meant to work with people with disabilities.
"All of my experiences helped me understand I was meant to follow this path," he said.
McCurry has persevered through obstacles on that path and this month will graduate from UMD with a major in communication and a minor in special education. Final exams for the fall 2016 semester end Friday.
Decision to attend UMD
In the fall of 2009, McCurry came to Duluth to participate in adjustment-to-blindness training at the Lighthouse Center for Vision Loss.
"I needed to learn more daily living skills, classes in Braille," McCurry said.
Another key part of training was the adjustment to technology. McCurry had already started to adapt to technology in high school, but he needed further education on topics such as using a computer to take notes, and screen magnification.
While in Duluth, the question of "what next" was raised. McCurry had planned on going to college, but the tumor had put a major roadblock in that path. On an impulse, he toured UMD and loved it — especially the school's commitment to serving students with disabilities.
"UMD does a really good job accommodating students with disabilities," McCurry said. "They do a great job advocating for students in the classroom."
And the layout of the campus — with its wide hallways and buildings connected to each other by hallways — helped clinch McCurry's decision to attend.
He started classes at UMD in the spring of 2010.
UMD's Disability Resources, McCurry said, "has done a lot for me with technology in class, making accommodations for testing such as listening tests or extra time, and providing note takers in the event that I can not."
McCurry said he wishes that the assistance offered by UMD could extend to other parts of his life — better transportation to and from class and other places in Duluth not on bus lines, and a greater abundance of technology.
"It's really challenging if you don't have the right technology," McCurry said. "There's only so much time I can spend in a cubicle on a school-issued computer."
McCurry walks to and from school — he tries to get in his 10,000 steps each day. Outside of class and homework he hangs out with friends, enjoys playing Minecraft and plays pool every Friday.
"Playing pool with vision loss is hard but it just takes me a little longer to make the shot," McCurry said. "I play well enough that my opponent puts up with me."
This semester, as part of his program at UMD, McCurry has gone to an elementary school twice a week and worked in a special education classroom.
"Those days are the best days of the week," he said.
As a student at UMD, McCurry has helped advocate for people with disabilities. He's a four-year executive member of Access for All, a student group dedicated to promoting awareness of disabilities and disability issues, and dispelling the many misconceptions associated with disabilities.
Staff and fellow students describe McCurry as complex, in a good way — lighthearted, kind, outgoing, open and intense.
"Throughout the years I've seen Sam mature and grow up," said Judy Breuer, a friend of McCurry's and former UMD student who he met in Access for All. "He has become more calm, thoughtful and self-assured over the course of college."
"I've watched over the years as Sam has defined his goals and began taking action to pursue his career aspirations," said Emily Norenberg, the director of Disability Resources at UMD and the former adviser to Access for All. "In addition, it's fair to say that Sam has matured as an individual in a broad sense. It's difficult to describe exactly, but he's become more assured of who he is as an individual."
After college, McCurry said, he wants to find a place where he can work and help people with disabilities — whether it's in a school or other setting.
McCurry has been looking at jobs in the Twin Cities, specifically in the Chaska area where his parents reside. He said he's unsure whether he wants to stay in the Northland, but said it ultimately will depend on what job offers he receives.
"I've been looking into vision specialist jobs," McCurry said. "I just want to find a job where I can help people."