Human rights activist Marina Schuster speaks for Bhutto-Ispahani lecture series.
Paralyzed at birth, recent La Verne graduate Ashley Hughes amazes and inspires others with an indomitable spirit, a drive to succeed and a very special grandmother.
Ashley Hughes lay on her bed, holding a pen with a rubber tip in her mouth, her cell phone on a stand in front of her. The University of La Verne senior guided the pen by moving her head quickly in a pecking motion. She was typing an essay into her phone.
Though she’d been gravely ill, Hughes wasn’t about to let that stop her from completing her college coursework. Considering all she’d already overcome, that much was a given.
A doctor’s error during her birth robbed Hughes of the use of her arms and her legs, but she has always believed in the power of her mind.
Harnessing that power, the 23-year-old Claremont woman graduated summa cum laude last May from La Verne, earning a bachelor’s degree in accounting and leaving the university with a near-perfect grade point average. The College of Business & Public Administration honored Hughes as its “Senior of the Year” and she was chosen to be the student speaker at commencement.
During her commencement speech, a grinning Ashley said, “Failure was not an option.” The Ortmayer Stadium audience erupted in applause and cheers.
Sitting nearby on stage, Ashley’s grandmother, Linda Hughes, beamed. Since her granddaughter was in the sixth grade, Linda has attended classes with her, quietly taking notes for her and also making sure the ventilator that keeps Ashley alive is running properly. Together, the two have accomplished things many people would believe to be impossible.
“A lot of people don’t understand her,” Linda said. “She can do anything. She does all of her homework. She types all of her own essays. She does her own research. She’s far from helpless. She’s very dedicated.”
A Cruel Beginning
Ashley was born at Pomona Valley Community Hospital. As Linda explains it, during delivery Ashley’s spine was stretched by a doctor who was under the influence of drugs and alcohol. The doctor almost broke Ashley’s neck trying to pull her from the womb, irreparably damaging her spinal cord and leaving her without the use of her arms or legs.
Ashley’s mother was 16 and overwhelmed. Recognizing the challenge ahead, Ashley’s grandparents stepped into the role of primary caregivers. The first 2½ years of Ashley’s life were spent in hospitals and at a rehabilitation center. Linda then quit her job and took her granddaughter home.
For Linda, Ashley has been a blessing, a source of happiness and unyielding pride, a beacon of light who sings along to country music, cherishes summers traveling across the country in the family RV, and captivates others with her steadfast optimism.
“My experiences with Ashley, I would never trade those years for anything. Never,” Linda said. “I’ve learned so much just being with Ashley, and not just academically. I’ve learned a lot about myself. I learned a lot of patience, a lot of tolerance. Lots of love. I could name thousands of things that I’ve learned from just being around her. She’s been my biggest inspiration. If she can do it, I can do it.”
From an early age, Ashley dreamed big. If there was something she wanted to do, she found a way. Linda and other relatives helped Ashley develop self-reliance by treating her just like any other child.
“She wanted to show me that I was capable of doing things,” Ashley said of her grandmother. “It’s definitely a lot of determination and love, just loving me and wanting to help me. That’s what she’s always wanted.”
A Love for Learning
A happy child who absorbed information quickly, Ashley never thought of learning as hard or beyond her.
“I love learning,” Ashley said. “I have videos of me (from when I was younger) and I’m lying in bed and I’m saying ‘I want a book! I want a book!’”
As a small child, she did big math problems in her head. She kept a list of words, meticulously adding new ones. She constantly asked for books and got her first computer that she used by tapping with a pointer when she was 2.
Linda said that from the beginning Ashley was interested in everything.
“I really don’t think it has to do with her lack of being able to do anything else,” Linda said. “When she was little, she would listen. She had a keen sense of hearing.”
Ashley learned to do many of the things other children did. When she wanted to play with little wooden figures and other toys, Linda’s husband figured out a way for her to pick them up with her pointer, using magnets and string.
“Even when she was little, if she wanted to do something, we’d find a way for her to do it,” Linda said.
In high school, Ashley’s family decorated their RV in pink and purple paint so Ashley could go to the prom. J.J., Ashley’s 27-year-old uncle, who she calls her brother, accompanied her.
“She never really thought of herself as being disabled,” Linda said. “She was brought up like that and we never treated her any differently than any other kid.”
Linda’s devotion to her granddaughter is the embodiment of love. Today, Ashley often refers to Linda as “Mom.” Linda, 67, doesn’t see it as a job or a sacrifice, and says she has received as much as she has given, has learned as much — if not more — as she has taught.
That devotion manifested itself during fall semester 2006. Linda suffered a broken ankle, but she didn’t let that stop her from accompanying Ashley to school.
For College of Business & Public Management Dean Ibrahim “Abe” Helou, the image of Ashley in her wheelchair followed by Linda on crutches is indelibly etched in his mind.
“There are no words to describe it,” Helou said. “Every time I think of that picture, I get goose bumps.”
Day by Day
Ashley doesn’t complain about her situation. “I don’t know why,” she said. “I just never have. I mean not every day is perfect.”
“She just doesn’t know how to do that,” Linda added. “That’s the way she grew up. We didn’t complain in front of her. If there was something wrong, she didn’t know it.”
Then, as now, Ashley was never alone, accompanied by a caregiver at all times. Linda was up at 7 a.m. to get Ashley ready for school, a process that takes 90 minutes. Getting her ready for bed takes a little longer — two hours. Ashley has to be turned over in the middle of the night. Linda, Ashley’s mother and Ashley’s uncle take turns staying awake with her at night.
During the day, Linda is always nearby, making sure the ventilator is working. Every 30 minutes, Ashley’s wheelchair tilts back to prevent pressure sores from forming on her body.
Despite outward appearances, Ashley is anything but fragile; she has often been misjudged because she is in a wheelchair. People sometimes think she has a mental disability.
“We have confronted that a lot,” Linda said. “When people see Ashley, the first thing they assume is that she has some kind of problem up there. But the minute they start talking to her, they realize that she doesn’t. People sometimes will walk up and direct a question to me, like she can’t speak for herself.”
An Indelible Impression
For Ashley, studying accounting was a natural choice, given her love of math. She will soon take the Certified Public Accountant exam — her professors say there is no doubt she will sail through it — and ultimately wants to work for the Internal Revenue Service.
Whether she intended to or not, Linda also became adept in accounting. When Ashley graduated, administrators surprised Linda with an honorary bachelor’s degree — the first in the university’s history. Faculty members and the dean assert she absolutely earned it.
Ashley said her experiences at La Verne have been amazing. “They’ve been very welcoming and very accepting of who I am and my condition,” she said. “They haven’t tried to make any exceptions, nothing as far as making it easier and I love that.”
Ashley quickly became close with Cynthia Denne, director of Student Health Services and Services for Students with Disabilities.
Denne helped make sure that Ashley had priority registration and that her classrooms were accessible.
For class tests, Ashley went to Denne’s office at the health center. If the tests were multiple choice or short answer, Denne would write them out. If the tests were essays, Ashley typed them herself using a pointer that attaches to a device she wears around her head and is directed by her head movement and facial muscles.
“She has got one of the most positive outlooks and a cheerfulness about her,” Denne said. “She’s an incredible young woman. She’s a sweetheart. There isn’t one person on this campus who would disagree with that.”
Denne also said the quality of Ashley’s work is outstanding.
Business administration professor Janis C. Dietz can attest to that. Dietz describes Ashley as an excellent and social student. Dietz recalls Ashley attending banquets and working the room, stopping to speak to professors and students.
“She is somebody that you will remember the rest of your life,” Dietz said. “And she is somebody who makes you realize how many gifts you have been given and makes you want to be a better person. I have benefited tremendously from knowing her.”
Political science professor Richard Gelm said Ashley always participated in class discussion in his modern political theory class.
“Ashley is one of the best students I have encountered,” said Gelm, who has been teaching for 19 years. “She’s an extraordinary student and an extraordinary person.”
Ashley also formed a special relationship with accounting professor Claudio Munoz, who has had Ashley and Linda in four classes.
“As a student, I’d have to put her in the top 10 I’ve ever had in my 16 years of teaching at La Verne,” Munoz said. “She’s in the top 0.1 percent as a student (and) a top 10 person for sure.”
Ashley and Linda simply do not settle for anything less than excellence, he said. If Linda were enrolled and could take the CPA exam, she, too, would pass, he said.
A Source of Inspiration
Munoz says he admires Ashley’s “can do” approach to life.
“She’s just not a disabled person in her head, in her mind. She’s challenged, there’s no question about it,” he said. “But she’s an overcomer. Both of them are overcomers of their challenges.”
Looking to get his students inspired, Munoz turned to Ashley for advice. What could he tell his students?
“Just ‘Git-R-Done,’” was Ashley’s response, quoting comedian Larry the Cable Guy. Munoz has used that expression often.
“Everybody who took accounting with Claudio knows what ‘Git-R-Done’ means,” Linda said with a laugh.
Munoz and others say their admiration for the pair is even greater, considering the medical challenges Ashley has had to overcome. During her years at La Verne, Ashley has had temporary kidney failure and pancreatitis and has undergone gall bladder surgery.
“You’re looking at a wonderful story of human sacrifice on Linda’s part, but I don’t know who got the better end of the deal,” Munoz said. “They both got something that I feel is extremely rewarding, both from each other and this experience, and I don’t think it’s only at La Verne. I think it’s also in life. They’re so symbiotic. They literally, in a positive way, feed off each other and nourish each other. It’s incredible what they have going for each other.”
When Ashley had temporary kidney failure, she suffered from a pressure sore after lying on a hospital bed in the emergency room for 10 hours. It was the first week of school of her senior year. The doctor told Ashley and Linda that the sore would never heal if she got back into her wheelchair. Ashley and Linda went to the first meeting of every class but worried about whether Ashley would have to drop out.
Ashley spent three weeks in bed and never stopped working. “She did everything she was supposed to do,” Linda said.
Even before gall bladder surgery, Ashley didn’t abandon her studies.
“She has all these tubes attached to her and she is white as a sheet,” Linda said. “She’s got her biology book propped up in front of her. She’s studying while she is waiting for surgery. That’s just the way she is.”
Linda said she is so proud of Ashley that words often fail her.
“When we look back on all those years, at the time we’re doing it, it doesn’t seem like it’s hard sometimes,” she said. “We don’t stop to think about how we’re going to do it. We just do it. If it’s raining, we put the cover on her vent and put the umbrella over her. If it’s cold, we protect her. If it’s hot, we do this and that. We never really stop and think about things like that. Now, when I look back on it, I don’t know how we did it.”
For Ashley and Linda, all the hard work culminated on a sunny May morning as they both donned caps and gowns for the school’s commencement ceremony.
When the keynote speaker, L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca, took the stage, he spoke about the crucial role that family had played in the success of the graduates gathered before him. He might as well have been talking about Linda and Ashley.
Baca then singled Ashley out, marveling at her achievements.
“The point is she has shown that all of us can learn from her,” he said. Turning to Ashley, he continued: “You are a great, great example of mind management.”
The crowd fell silent as Ashley began her commencement speech. She described her excitement and apprehension when she first came to La Verne.
“All I wanted was to be treated like all the rest of the students,” she said. “I didn’t want the professors to make exceptions or lighten the homework load for me. I am thankful they didn’t because the continuous challenge has given me a chance to be what I wanted to be, and I would not trade my experiences for anything.”
Despite difficult and challenging moments, Ashley said she never doubted herself. She ended her speech with a Buddhist saying that she said has often inspired her.
“If you are not willing to learn, no one can help you,” Ashley said. “If you are determined to learn, no one can stop you.”
Then, it was Linda’s turn. She was shocked when she was presented with her honorary bachelor’s degree.
But on stage, Ashley soon pointed out that she hadn’t received her own diploma.
“Somebody’s not ‘Gitting-R-Done’,” she joked.
Afterward, Linda was stunned. Ashley was exuberant.
“That was amazing,” Ashley said.
Ashley said she is sad to leave La Verne, but is excited about her future. For Linda, leaving is also bittersweet.
“I don’t know how I’m going to feel,” she said. “It’s like home here.”
Ashley takes satisfaction in knowing she did what she set out to do — and more.
“One of the biggest mottos that I’ve lived by is ‘dream big,’” Ashley said. “Don’t just dream. Go for the stars. That’s what I’ve always done.”