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Muhlenberg College

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

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desire, dedication, degree:
tara demarzo graduates from muhlenberg

“The future ain’t what it used to be.” – Yogi Berra.

For Tara DeMarzo, the future got one step closer to what it used to be when she received her degree at Muhlenberg’s 162nd Commencement on Sunday. The minute or two it took for her to walk up one ramp, receive her diploma and a warm hug from Muhlenberg President Randy Helm and walk down another ramp ended an incredible journey of almost eight years.

It was a moment most thought would never take place.

“It’s very rewarding,” said DeMarzo of her graduation. “This was a big milestone to be able to prove to myself and to everyone else that having a brain injury didn’t mean I wasn’t capable of doing what I set out to do.”

DeMarzo came to Muhlenberg in August 2002, and it wasn’t long before she became immersed in the life Tara DeMarzo of the campus. She was a catcher on the softball team, played field hockey for a year, joined a sorority and wrote for The Weekly. In October 2004, DeMarzo spoke before an elite group of Muhlenberg donors to assist in fundraising efforts for the addition to the Life Sports Center.

DeMarzo was described in the school newspaper as “the model of an involved college student, reaching out and participating in any event that interested her.” She was on track to becoming a certified high school English teacher, catching for her senior softball season and graduating with the peers she’d grown up with at Muhlenberg.

All that changed in November 2005, however, when DeMarzo was involved in a near-fatal car accident.

Describing that time, DeMarzo refers to another baseball quote, this one from Archibald “Moonlight” Graham in the movie Field of Dreams: “It was like coming this close to your dreams, and then watching them brush past you like strangers in a crowd.”

The accident shook the Muhlenberg campus, but it also drove her fellow students and College employees into action. Even as she battled for her life in a nearby hospital, DeMarzo was bringing out the best in others.

After DeMarzo returned home in January 2006, a series of fundraisers was organized, ranging from a pizza night to an all-campus softball tournament to raffles at home athletic events. Green t-shirts with “desire.dedication.demarzo” on the front and “TD” on the back were sold. Several thousands of dollars were raised to assist the DeMarzo family with the medical expenses.

“Everyone at Muhlenberg from the President on down has been Tara DeMarzo very supportive,” said DeMarzo. “Coach [Ruth] Gibbs would come and spend time with me, and take me out to lunch. A few of my friends made scrapbooks from CarePages and gave me stacks of albums with all these messages. It was touching that so many people were concerned about me.”

DeMarzo stayed at HealthSouth Rehabilitation in Plainsboro, N.J., from January 2006 to the spring of 2007. She returned to campus in May 2006 to speak before her classmates at a Senior Week luncheon, but it clearly wasn’t the same Tara.

“My memory was a lot worse then. I couldn’t remember who people were,” she recalled. “Today, as I was walking in the procession, I recognized some of my old professors. That was cool.”

In the fall of 2007, DeMarzo began outpatient therapy at JFK Hartwyck in Edison, N.J. She also began taking classes at Middlesex County College, with the assistance of Muhlenberg’s registrar’s office, which helped make sure that her classes were approved for transfer credits before she enrolled in them.

DeMarzo took one or two classes per semester, getting As and Bs in all of them, until she completed the graduation requirements for Muhlenberg this spring.

Along the way, she reached other milestones. In the spring of 2009, she was cleared to drive through a driver’s education class. Although she still walks with a limp, she no longer needs a cane or walker, relying only on a Bioness brace that uses electrical stimuli.

DeMarzo may be regaining more and more of her independence, but she needed help – kind of –to answer a question on the rate of her progress.

“For six months after the accident, no one thought she would ever walk or have the cognitive ability to be able to get through school. They didn’t even know if she was going to live. Tara has been working very hard to get here,” said her father, Eugene DeMarzo.

“I would have said that,” said Tara with a smile. “But I didn’t want to sound like I was bragging.”

“I feel like I’m becoming a grownup again,” she added. “I was like a desire.dedication.demarzo shirt baby after the accident; I couldn’t walk or swallow. My whole life stopped and I had to start it over.”

DeMarzo’s life now is much like you would expect any other recent college graduate’s. She has a part-time job at a CVS, she has a boyfriend, she has hundreds of friends on facebook, and she is thinking about going to graduate school for library science.

And she is teaching. This spring, DeMarzo became involved in a program at Hartwyck called The Collaborative Experience Project, where former patients instruct current patients who have had traumatic brain injuries. DeMarzo heads the creative arts segment of the program, designing lesson plans for the twice-monthly two-hour sessions and heading the sessions with the help of two other instructors.

“It’s in my nature to think of other people, and this is a good avenue to be able to share with other people that they can do it, too,” she said.

In one of the sessions, DeMarzo helped her class make new lyrics to the Gloria Gaynor song “I Will Survive.” The rewritten song was “I Survived.”

And that is an understatement for DeMarzo, who not only survived, but overcame incredible odds to thrive. Her last class at Middlesex was American Cinema, and she came across a quote from an American movie icon, Marilyn Monroe, that sums up her situation very well: “Sometimes good things fall apart so that better things can fall together.”

“At the beginning, I had a lot of ‘I wish I had just died moments,’” she admitted. “But as I progressed, and was doing well, I became very proud of myself, knowing that I wasn’t just a brain injured girl. I’m still me.”

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