BY KONNER METZ
Every August, thousands of first-year students step foot onto campus as the university ushers in a new wave of Blue Hen students.
This year, one freshman from Pennsylvania has a remarkable road to the university to offer.
Anna Harootunian, a marketing major, powered through six surgeries during high school and overcame numerous physical and mental hurdles en route to becoming a Blue Hen. Harootunian has cerebral palsy, a motor disability that hinders a person’s ability to control muscles.
She committed to the university back in February and graduated from West Chester East High School this past spring.
“UD checked all the boxes,” she said. “It was really nice and relaxing to commit to something.”
It was a careful process to select a school for Harootunian. Between weighing different housing accommodations, checking buildings and dining halls and seeing how responsive certain universities were, there were a variety of factors for her and her family to consider.
At Delaware, Harootunian said the campus layout is a great fit, with most campus spots in close proximity to one another and everything within a reasonable walking distance.
She toured her dorm room in South Academy along with other buildings, and ensured there were necessary accommodations, even as simple as buttons to enter the front of a building.
However, the road to choosing a school and committing to college was full of demanding obstacles. Her high school journey took a major turn during the fall of her junior year.
In September of 2021, Harootunian underwent a major orthopedic operation at Nemours Children’s Hospital in Wilmington. The surgeries included osteotomies, in which bones are cut and adjusted, and gastroc recessions, which lengthens muscle tendons and shifts the heels’ positioning.
Six surgeries later, she began physical therapy as she recovered in the hospital. All the while, her classmates were enjoying a semi-normal junior year after their sophomore year was greatly impacted by COVID-19.
“Being separated from my peers was very, very difficult,” she said. “Academically, it’s my junior year. It’s one of the most important years of high school and getting into college. So I was just trying to navigate all that and have somewhat of a normal experience while recovering from a major surgery.”
In the hospital, she grew close to her mother, who spent the most time with her. In addition to both parents, her older brother and grandmother could visit, but no other visitors were permitted due to restrictions.
The physical challenges after surgery were obvious, but the mental ones were just as daunting.
“It took a big toll on my mental health,” Harootunian said. “I was the only one going through this. Meanwhile, all my friends were going to homecoming, taking SAT prep classes [and] getting into colleges.
“When everyone else is in school and socializing with everyone, you don’t realize how big that is until you lose it.”
But with the team at Nemours and her family, her support system was able to help her power through months of physical therapy and isolation from her peers in high school.
At Nemours, Harootunian is currently co-chair of the Teen Advisory Council, a group that advocates for the teens at the hospital and plans events like a Teen Prom Program. She has been on the council for nearly two years.
As co-chair, she has advocated for teens to have access to the same resources as their peers and for doctors and workers to understand that with teenagers, sugarcoating surgeries or diagnoses sometimes hurts more than it helps.
“I think it’s an amazing cause,” Harootunian said. “It really gives the teens at Nemours a voice. I think that the teens do need to be heard.”
The therapists and doctors at Nemours Children’s Hospital were also supportive of Harootunian’s desire to go to college in person.
“It really helped my mom as well, hearing other people say, ‘Oh we’ve seen other kids go to college, here are your resources.’”
At the university, Harootunian will study marketing, inspired in part by taking a social media class in her senior year of high school.
She said she hopes to be just like any other student pursuing a degree and career, while also being able to continue her advocacy with the Teen Advisory Council.
“I just want to be like an average person that just has a disability,” she said. “I don’t want the disability to be my whole identity.”
As her time at college begins, the 18-year-old is ready to hit the ground running in a new environment and meet new people. There is definitely nervousness, but more so excitement, said Harootunian.
The obstacles she faced in her lead-up to college serve as examples for other teenagers in similar situations, unsure of their future after high school.
“Don’t let others stop you,” Harootunian said. “You are able to do it. A lot of kids with disabilities are told, ‘I don’t know if going to college is the best.’”
“It really took me being confident. You can do it, just explore all your options. There’s always a way, you’ll find your way eventually. Even if you need help at college, there are resources for you.”