Nicole Dobson can’t keep her fingers off her hot pink iPhone.
In the few minutes’ walk from her room in Willard Hall to the ITCC, the UMW senior’s Facebook “likes” have revved up.
“182,” she says, eyes glued to the screen in her hands. “183!”
Dobson’s mid-March post? “BIG DAY – I have been accepted to … Columbia University.”
Rewind nearly a decade to another big day.
“I faced things no 13-year-old should have to face,” said Dobson, who was asleep in the backseat of her family’s minivan when an 18-wheeler slammed it from behind. She was thrown through a window and 30 feet from the car; suffered a traumatic brain injury, 11 broken bones, and a punctured lung; and spent three weeks in a coma.
As she pushed through therapy, learning to walk, talk – and think – all over again, the young field hockey player from Santa Fe realized she’d never be the same. Now, UMW and its Center for International Education (CIE) have proven her right. Just not in the way she’d imagined.
“Having totally been outshone in high school, I felt like college presented an opportunity for me to stand out,” said Dobson, who formed UMW’s Diversability club as a freshman.
She’d spend the next four years growing the group, which raises awareness of students with visible challenges, like being blind, and less obvious ones, including dyslexia.
“It was definitely a defining accomplishment,” she said. “It taught me so much that my courses couldn’t.”
If Diversability was the crown on Dobson’s college career, study abroad made it shine.
She spent summer 2013 in Bilbao, Spain, on scholarship, with Associate Professor of Spanish and CIE Director Jose Sainz. But it was last spring’s return trip – this one on UMW’s prestigious Grellet C. Simpson International Scholarship – that helped shape her future, giving her the kind of experience grad schools take seriously.
Dobson dove into her studies at the Universidad de Deusto, soaked up the Basque countryside, and took one extra step. She volunteered, teaching English to a variety of children. That’s when she met Uxue (pronounced “oo-soo-ay”), an 8-year-old, with a pair of pigtails and just-lost front teeth, who’d been born without hearing.
“At first, I was like, ‘how do you teach a deaf child English?’ ” Dobson said of the girl she learned had received hearing-enabling cochlear implants at 6 months.
Uxue still struggled with stuttering and language delay, and Dobson knew she’d need to feel safe before she could learn, so she worked to coax her out of her shell and build a rapport with her family.
“These were incredible experiences that Nicole sought on her own,” Sainz said of Dobson, who will graduate with honors and also was accepted to George Washington University. “What I am most amazed by is her capacity to help others. It goes beyond cultures.”
Her time at Mary Washington winding down, Dobson recently turned Diversability over to a younger club member, saying goodbye to a big part of her past. She came home from that meeting to find the email from her No. 1 school and say hello to her future as a bilingual speech pathologist.
“I wanted to show everyone I could be something more. I never imagined getting into Columbia,” Dobson said. “This is the life worth living.”