Undergraduate Student Profile: Defying the Odds

April 29, 2014


Special education senior overcomes health challenges, fights for success

By Sarah Wardell

People can’t know—really know—something until it’s experienced. Until they’ve lived it.

And in her 20 years, special education senior Julia Ruggirello has lived it. 

Since infancy, Julia has battled cystic fibrosis, or CF, a chronic and life-threatening disorder. It causes unusually thick mucous to build up in the body, particularly in the lungs, that results in frequent bronchial infections.

According to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, the life expectancy for the 70,000 adults and children worldwide suffering from CF is 37.

“Nobody can tell me when my time is up,” said Julia, her eyes sparkling. “The doctors can say what they want, but I’m gonna’ live to be 93.”

The oldest of three, Julia is tenacious and energetic. Interacting with her, one would not guess she battles CF—until she points at the scar on her chest where her medication port is located. 

“I will not be another statistic,” she says boldly.

Treating CF is like a part-time job for Julia. On average, she spends 1.5 to 2 hours per day administering breathing treatments, and the condition hospitalizes her at least twice a year for an average of 7 to 10 days.

“Take your worst flu—aches, pains, ailments—that’s what CF feels like on a daily basis,” said her father, Tony Ruggirello. “For her to overcome that every single day, and put on the face she does, it’s a miracle.”

Today, on top of steep physical challenges, she is about to finish the teacher preparation program at Michigan State University and become an educator. What’s the best part? She is going to graduate debt-free due to grants and scholarships she has worked to receive.

Julia Reading

Down, but not out

For Julia, being an educator was always the first career choice.

“When she was in second grade she started talking about it,” Tony said with a smile. “In fact, that year on her Christmas list, she asked for an overhead projector—which she got—and she would actually teach the stuffed animals in our basement.”

Growing up in the Detroit area, it was common for Julia to miss school due to her health complications. Always proactive, she would communicate regularly with her teachers about missed classes and assignments. 

Tony adds that Julia has always been passionate about learning, and because of her experiences, she feels she’s prepared to teach those with special needs.

“I’d really like to teach in an alternative high school, working with kids that maybe have had some personal issues,” Julia said. “I want to help those with multiple obstacles.” 

Despite the physical struggles she has faced throughout her life, Julia is very upbeat—and says her parents have constantly focused on gratitude.

“We would tell her, ‘There’s always people struggling more than we are,’” Tony said. “Nobody can control the cards they’re dealt, but we can make the best out of it.”

Tony knows this well. He lost both his hands in a work-related accident at 21 years old. His hope was to be an inspiration to Julia growing up, as she watched him overcoming challenges of his own. 

And he most definitely was. Julia cites him as a hero.

“My family is amazing, especially with my brother and I both having CF,” she said. “Neither of my parents ever treated me like I was ‘sick’… I was still expected to do chores when I came home from the hospital, just like any other kid.”

Julia's wrist tattoo.

Julia’s wrist tattoo reminds her to live life to the fullest every day.

When the time came to choose a college, she says Central Michigan University and Michigan State were her top choices. A major reason she chose MSU was the access to resources she found within and outside the College of Education, specifically for those who have special needs.

That, combined with the reputation of the college’s elementary and secondary programs, made Julia’s decision an easy one.

“I came for Green and White Day, and fell in love with MSU,” she said. “I’m so thankful I chose to come here. MSU alumni go out and do awesome stuff.”

Never one to shy away from opportunities to get involved, Julia sat on the student council of the National Honor Society in high school, and has become heavily engaged at MSU.

From having been invited by President Lou Anna K. Simon to serve as Student-at-Large on the President’s Advisory Committee on Disability Issues (PACDI) to serving in leadership positions with student groups like Kappa Delta Phi, Julia has spent countless volunteer hours on campus and off. 

In addition, Julia helped found Spartans Fighting Cystic Fibrosis, which has a goal of raising awareness and funds to help find a cure for CF. The group is planning a 5K this spring, and she is encouraged that once she moves on, the group will continue its work.

Future preparation

Through scholarships and grants she has received from MSU endowments and those outside of the university, Julia will graduate with virtually zero student loan debt.

“It’s been a blessing,” said Tony. “She has aggressively worked on getting scholarships, and I’m grateful they’re available—it was such a help.”

And now, in the midst of graduation, Julia is excited to learn more about classroom management and growing deeper relationships with her students.

julia-mountain“I’m thinking like a teacher,” she said. “The classroom immersion has been so beneficial … I honestly feel I have the necessary tools to become an effective teacher.”

Julia is a member of the Global Educators Cohort Program—which she refers to as a family—a cohort program with a goal to give future educators a global view, to make an impact in today’s classrooms. 

And as for the future, specifically after she graduates in May? Ruggirello says she’s decided to pursue a master’s degree, but is open to the possibility of where life may take her.

But first? A half-marathon.

Julia’s College of Education Scholarships

Charles and Philippa Webb Endowed Scholars Award

Honoring the lives of distinguished alumni Charles and Philippa Webb—two extraordinary people who’ve made it their life’s work to give back to their university—recipients of this award are undergraduate and/or post-baccalaureate (internship year) students. Those selected are typically enrolled in the college’s elementary or secondary education program, and have registered with the Resource Center for Persons with Disabilities (RCPD).

Nelson-MacLellan Endowed Scholarship in the College of Education

The career of Sheila MacLellan Nelson, who began her teaching career in Marquette, Mich. at the approximate time that programs for the mentally handicapped were emerging from “church basements” and first appearing in public schools, was a lengthy and distinguished one. Intended for admitted students at the undergraduate level (junior or senior) seeking a degree in special education, recipients of this endowed scholarship are selected on the basis of their academic excellence, financial need and strong interest in special education.