Overcoming obstacles, pursuing passions

MTHS graduate adapts and learns to thrive

By: Marisa Maldonado
   Rachel DeGraw knows her strengths and weaknesses, and she is certain that she can turn her passion for the business of fashion into a career.
   Likewise, she knows that most other subjects in school have not come as easily to her. As a result, being diagnosed with learning disabilities after struggling with reading comprehension and concentration her freshman year at Monroe Township High School came as no surprise.
   The recent Monroe graduate spoke about her learning struggles and the efforts she has made to overcome them at the Dare To Dream conference, a Department of Education-sponsored event for students with physical, mental and learning disabilities. She had attended last year’s Dare to Dream conference, but said she felt "out of place" because none of the speakers focused on learning disabilities.
   "You don’t look at me and say, ‘Rachel is disabled,’ " said Ms. DeGraw, a resident of Jamesburg. "Because I don’t think I am. I just have a (different) learning style."
   Ms. DeGraw has always learned best through pictures and hands-on activities, she said. She thrived in classes such as geometry and physics, where pictures and hands-on activities played a large role in learning. She also dealt better if she could think "out of the box" during her language arts class.
   "I would do poorly if a teacher gave me a set of questions and said, ‘Answer them,’ " Ms. DeGraw said. "But if a teacher asked me what I thought of it, what my interpretation was, or what my reaction was, I would respond with flying colors."
   Basic verbal and math skills were Ms. DeGraw’s weaknesses. A series of "long, annoying" tests showed that she struggled with math and memorization, she said. After meeting with her teachers, the school psychologist and her evaluator, the staff created for her an individualized education program, a plan created for all district students with special needs.
   Monroe gave Ms. DeGraw the option to have an extra teacher in the classroom to help explain lessons that moved too fast or rephrase information that confused her. She took advantage of it mostly during math and some language arts classes, she said.
   "If I needed the extra help, that was great because I had it," Ms. DeGraw said. "But if I didn’t need the help, I wasn’t going to rely on it, and I wasn’t going to ask for it."
   As a senior, Ms. DeGraw relied on support staff less, because she took more electives, she said. Among the electives she took were clothing I and II, classes that focused on the business side of the fashion industry.
   Ms. DeGraw plans to major in fashion merchandising at the Laboratory Institute of Merchandising in Manhattan, N.Y., — where she’ll be able to walk out of her dormitory onto Madison Avenue — preparing for a business-related fashion career such as a buyer, personal shopper or personal stylist. She plans to minor in public relations, a choice she said was inspired by the character Samantha, who works in public relations, on the television show "Sex and the City."
   She isn’t sure how she became interested in fashion, although she said an aunt who works in the industry partially inspired her. In middle school she tried to wear clothing that made her stand out. In high school, she became more in-tune to the latest trends, although she and her best friend often raid thrift stores in Red Bank.
   "There’s so much past in them," she said, "and the past always comes back in fashion."
   Reading magazines such as Vogue and InStyle gives her ideas, she said, even if it consumes much of her time.
   "Rather than taking two seconds to look at it, it takes me five hours," Rachel said. "I like to read everything; I like to know everything; I like to look at everything."
   Applying this passion to her major in college will make learning easier, she said, although she can use the school’s support services if she chooses. Her classes will be small — school enrolls 320 new students each year — and individual interaction with her professors also will help her, she said.
   "I’m not going to college just to graduate and get a job," Ms. DeGraw said. "I’m going to college to pursue my dreams and passions."