University Park, IL,
12:48 PM

Makya Newsom: Positive Perseverance

The day Makya Newsom walked into a classroom at Governors State University this fall, every student stopped and took notice.

The 18-year-old freshman from Calumet City had been using a wheelchair since the semester began. That afternoon, she felt strong enough to walk. “I just went in, said hello,” Newsom said with a smile as she recalled her classmates’ amazed looks.

Despite an unusual medical condition that sometimes makes her unable to walk, talk or see, Newsom is focused on becoming a doctor, a journey she is beginning at GSU with a remarkable combination of perseverance and positivity.

“Her ability to keep pushing forward is a superhero-kind-of-thing,” observed Kristy Goodwin, Director of the College Pathways Program. 

At the start of 2019, Newsom was focused on graduating from Thornton-Fractional North High School, where she had played trumpet and saxophone in the marching band, served as a peer mentor and participated in the GSU’s TriO partner Gloria J. Taylor Foundation which uses federal funds to help students overcome barriers to college education. Newsom also managed to find time to work as a licensed pharmacy technician at Walgreen’s.

But her busy life screeched to a halt one morning in January 2019, when she woke up and discovered she could not walk. When her parents helped her stand, Newsom found she was losing her vision and becoming unable to speak. It took four months and doctors at three hospitals to diagnose her condition, known as postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome, or POTS. According to the Cleveland Clinic, “Heart rate and blood pressure work together to keep the blood flowing at a healthy pace, no matter what position the body is in. People with POTS cannot coordinate the balancing act of blood vessel squeeze and heart rate response. This means the blood pressure cannot be kept steady and stable.”

For Newsom, the unpredictable condition upended her life. But having a diagnosis brought relief—and a stronger desire to become a physician herself. “I want to be a doctor, especially after so many misdiagnoses,” she said. “I’m going to be the one who’s going to be there for patients and families.”

While visiting doctors to determine the correct diagnosis, Newsom pushed forward with plans for college and received 12 acceptance letters. She received homebound services to complete high school. The support of one woman was critical to her success: Teresa Dixon of the Gloria J. Taylor Foundation. “Teresa became her advocate, making her life more sensible and helping move things along,” Goodwin said.

Newsom’s mother had attended a GSU info session and shared her daughter’s story with Corey Williams, Associate Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students. Believing that GSU could provide both an excellent education and the solid support Newsom would need, Williams and Goodwin headed to the foundation’s office at T-F North High School to personally invite her to enroll, a gesture the university had not made since 2012.

“Corey told her, ‘Whatever you need, we’re here,’ ” Goodwin recalled. “We wanted her because we need strong-willed students. And she is especially healthy in her resilience. We wanted to bring hope and positive energy Miss Makya's way.”

Drawn by the close-knit community she had observed on her own visit and impressed by GSU’s willingness to work with her, Newsom accepted, planning to major in biology. In August, she moved into on-campus housing. Just before classes began, she attended a Services and Leadership Seminar and made good friends who readily help her when she needs it, whether in class or at the university’s residence hall Prairie Place. And she worked with Access Services for Students with Disabilities to come up with accommodations that enable her to communicate with faculty, staff and students when she’s unable to speak or see, a condition that comes and goes and is unpredictable.

As Newsom forges ahead toward her goal of becoming a doctor, she is well supported at GSU, a place where student diversity takes many forms and receives much support.

“It is important for GSU to support students with disabilities because everyone should have access to a fair and appropriate education,” said Angela Szczepanik-Sanchez, GSU’s newly named Director of Student Disability Services, who joined the staff in 2019.

“Everyone should have the opportunity to gain knowledge and experiences even if it looks a little different than others.”