Student with Duchenne's disorder earns diploma early

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Earning a bachelor's degree is a high point in the lives of many Grand Valley graduates. For Jim Albright and his family, it was a milestone that once seemed impossible.

Albright, 21, suffers from Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD), a disorder that involves rapidly worsening muscle weakness. The average life expectancy of people with DMD often ranges to the mid-20s.

President Thomas J. Haas and Provost Gayle R. Davis presented Albright with a bachelor's degree in computer science during a private ceremony on February 17 in Seidman House on the Allendale Campus. Albright, a senior, was scheduled to participate in April’s commencement ceremony but his mother said they did not want to wait that long.

"We live with the unknown every day," said Deb Albright.

Albright has beaten the odds of DMD throughout his life. Diagnosed with the disorder at age 4, he was using a wheelchair by 7. While many boys with DMD do not finish high school, Albright graduated from Hudsonville High School when he was 16. He was homeschooled by his mother, who used the curriculums of both Freedom Baptist and Hudsonville schools.

"He was working year-round to get through because one of his friends with Duchenne's died at 14," Deb Albright said. "So many of these boys never finish high school." The genetic disorder affects mostly boys.

Albright started taking classes at Grand Valley in January 2007. For almost every course Jim took, Deb was by his side, taking notes and assisting him with his wheelchair and in the restroom.

As he and his mother learned to navigate campus, finding the unisex restrooms and wheelchair ramps, Albright became a stronger and stronger advocate for people with disabilities. He is currently working on a mobile application for smartphones that shows the locations of unisex restrooms, wheelchair ramps and handicapped parking spaces on campus. Through Grand Valley's Mobile Applications and Services Lab, led by associate professor Jonathan Engelsma, a group of students is helping Albright develop it. The students are Jason Berg, Harry Mosher, Mark Sauter, Sam Wiersema, Kyle DeGroff and Tim Wolfe.

"It could be used at other universities, amusement parks, airports," Albright said.

He also worked with Facilities Services and building contractors to increase the number of unisex restrooms in Mackinac Hall, when that building was undergoing renovation.

"When I started here I didn't think I would make it this far," he said. "Now a lot of stress is lifted and I can get out in the real world and show people with disabilities that they can contribute to society." Albright's goals are not complete. He said he would like to begin working toward a master's degree.