Kimberly Larsen of Mt. Vernon, Wash., knew from a young age that she wanted to become a teacher. When she was about to begin her journey at WGU, a mysterious neurological disorder left her with debilitating physical and mental symptoms. With the support of her mentor and instructors, Larsen overcame her barriers and earned her degree in Interdisciplinary Studies, and she is now achieving her lifelong dream of becoming a teacher.
Kimberly Larsen planned to become a teacher from a very young age. What she didn’t plan on were the obstacles that would test her strength along the way. When Kimberly set out to begin her academic journey at WGU, a sudden and inexplicable neurological disorder saddled her with debilitating physical and mental symptoms. While these posed major challenges—challenges that many would not have the resolve to overcome—Kimberly could not be derailed from fulfilling her lifelong dream.
In a sense, Kimberly has always been a teacher, beginning as a child growing up in Alaska. She wanted to be a teacher so bad that she set up a classroom in her bedroom. She made shelves out of canned food and wooden boards, and she filled them up with books. Then, she taught her baby brother how to read, “whether he wanted to or not,” she chuckled. “Teaching is in my blood,” she said. And this is no exaggeration. Both her grandparents worked in schools—her grandmother as a teacher for 35 years and her grandfather as a principal—and even her great-grandmother was a teacher.
Kimberly's journey to complete her teaching education was interrupted for what she light-heartedly calls “a few short decades.” During the interim, she worked as a sign language interpreter for children who were hard of hearing. Along the way, Kimberly sustained a shoulder injury, which kept her from being able to interpret for long periods of time. Soon after, she enrolled as a student at WGU. It was only a few months before her program began that Kimberly became ill with a neurological condition. Alongside several symptoms, Kimberly struggled with severe brain fog. “I used to love to read,” she said, “and suddenly I couldn’t read anymore.” She also developed Foreign Accent Syndrome, which, due to spasms in her vocal cords, caused her to sound like someone from a different country. “Here I was a stuttering, Swedish-sounding lady who couldn’t read starting at WGU.” She wondered, “How am I going to be able to achieve my dream now?”
Even in the face of such challenging obstacles, Kimberly did just that. She points to her mentor and instructors as major supporters in her journey. “I couldn’t have done it without them,” she said, “I slowly regained skills as I used the services available [at WGU].” She relearned how to read, think, and memorize. She learned how to persevere. She studied twice a week for months for her content exams. All her preparation paid off when she passed her math content exam with a score of 96%. “Not bad for someone who didn’t have a brain a few years ago,” she joked.
Following graduation, Kimberly started her preclinical experiences and student teaching in a fourth-grade classroom. Joking about the way these young students supported her, she said, “the best part about it aside from teaching—which I loved—was when you have 30 speech therapists watching you for six and a half hours a day. Your speech gets pretty good.” Within the past few months, Kimberly’s Foreign Accent Syndrome has faded, and her speech problems were resolved.
Kimberly reminds us that it’s not our differences in abilities that define us, but our strength, ambition, and achievements. The sheer opportunity to pursue our goals is a gift. At WGU, no matter who you are, you will be empowered to succeed. “Look at me, look at you, look at us! Can you believe we’re here?” she celebrated. “It has been our dream to reach this moment and we have accomplished that dream.”