Fall 2010 / Spring 2011

Photo: Rachel Stretcher (BA '08)
Photo: Rachel Stretcher (BA '08)
“I’ve come to recognize that helping [students] when they’re struggling with schoolwork helps me to not focus on my problems as much." -Celeste Peterson

A Long Road to Columbia

In 2008, Celeste Peterson did something she’d wanted to do since graduating from high school: she became a student at Columbia College Chicago. But her journey to the college has been anything but typical.


On a busy Saturday night fourteen years ago, Celeste Peterson and two friends were traveling down a freeway in Kansas City, Missouri, when a Chevy Corvette in front of them stopped dead in the middle lane. Peterson’s boyfriend slammed on his breaks to avoid hitting the Corvette, and their car came to a screeching halt. Temporarily forgetting she was in the middle of a busy freeway, Peterson prepared to get out of her car to confront the Corvette’s driver. She unfastened her seatbelt.

Seconds later, another car traveling on the interstate plowed into the back of Peterson’s vehicle, catapulting it into the Corvette. The force was so strong that, unbelted, Peterson rocketed forward, her head cracking the windshield. She was sent to the emergency room and released the same day, unaware that the repercussions of her injuries would profoundly affect the course of her life.

Two years after the crash, Peterson, newly graduated from an arts-based high school, applied to attend Columbia College Chicago. However, although she was accepted and wished to enroll, the car crash had left her with memory problems; she found it difficult to study and recall things that had happened only days before. College would have to wait. In 2005, her health worsened: She began having seizures and was diagnosed with epilepsy—a lifelong neurological disorder for which there is no cure.

Living with short-term memory loss and epilepsy might cause most people to give up permanently on their goals. Peterson didn’t. “I have always known I was going to go and finish school,” says Peterson, who began her education at Columbia as a photography student. “But up until now, [and] under the circumstances, I did not feel confident, ready, or able. A few years after living and viewing things differently, I finally felt ready. Recognizing that and feeling mentally prepared was encouraging. Not only that, but … understanding my neurological condition was empowering in all aspects of my life.”

A few months into her first year at Columbia, Peterson’s life took another turn. She attended then-Senator Barack Obama’s Super Tuesday event in Chicago and noticed an interpreter signing Obama’s words. The dynamic and expressive activity captured her imagination, and she met with her academic adviser the next day to talk about adding an ASL minor to her academic plan. But after learning job placement for ASL interpreters is nearly one hundred percent, she switched her major to ASL-English Interpretation and hasn’t looked back since.

During the last two years, Peterson has established herself as a leader in the Department of ASL-English Interpretation, banding together her fellow students and encouraging them to excel in their courses. “I’ve come to recognize that helping [students] when they’re struggling with schoolwork helps me to not focus on my problems as much,” Peterson says. “It gives me an opportunity to learn or practice whatever it is we might work on together. This pushes me to use the stress energy [in a] positive [way].”

Peterson is also one of the older students in the department (she’s thirty-two) and an outspoken advocate for Deaf culture, passionate about addressing the stigmas and stereotypes that plague individuals in the Deaf community. “There are a lot of misconceptions,” she says of Deaf culture. “The general American hearing population will consider a Deaf person hearing-impaired, which is an implication that they’re lacking something. But the Deaf community is very proud to be deaf. The only thing is that they speak a different language. The more I’m involved with this department, that’s a huge thing that I try and clear up for people who automatically think ‘disability’.”

Peterson’s drive and leadership in the Department of ASL-English Interpretation haven’t gone unnoticed. She was recently awarded the maximum amount of aid from Scholarship Columbia for the 2010-11 academic year. The scholarship’s recipients are chosen largely because of their academic achievements.

“She’s really dedicated,” says Diana Gorman Jamrozik, Associate Professor of ASL-English Interpretation. “I see the maturity, [and] to come in with that maturity and level of life experience is really nice.” Dr. James Van Manen, Assistant Professor, agrees. “I’m constantly amazed at how fresh she can make something appear when, frankly, she’s a non-traditional student,” he says.

While she still suffers from the occasional—and brief—seizure, Peterson tries not to let her epilepsy affect her schoolwork. She reduces the likelihood of an episode by not pushing her physical and neurological health too hard. And, to combat her memory loss problems, she studies hard and takes copious notes. Peterson also is active outside of academe: She’s an avid biker and sells Wisconsin-made cheese every summer at the Chicago Farmers’ Market, a job that’s earned her the nickname “The Cheese Girl.”

Although she went through difficult years prior to coming to Columbia, Peterson would agree that her past has only made her stronger. And while the thought of her future is a little nerve-wracking, she’s ready for it. “Knowing I was in a place in my life where I could finally go back [to college], I was—and am still—very excited,” she says. “I feel being away from school for so long—living, working, and having life experiences—has helped me to truly appreciate how awesome this opportunity is to be here.”