When Ann Motl signed up in 2003 for PACER Center's first EX.I.T.E (Exploring Interests in Technology and Engineering) Camp for middle school girls with disabilities, she had no idea that a few days of fun would change her life forever. Now 22 years old, Ann recently graduated from college with a Bachelor of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering.
“Before I went to EX.I.T.E Camp I knew that I really liked computers, and I didn't mind my math and science classes, but the camp taught me what an engineer actually does,” she says. “Seeing other people who were engineers – especially people with disabilities – really helped me decide that it was a great career path.”
The daughter of dairy farmers Mike Motl and Kim Harff, Ann graduated from Staples-Motley (Minn.) High School in 2008. She compiled a long list of honors and achievements along the way, and was awarded the Board of Governors Engineering Scholarship at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul.
Following her college graduation in 2012, Ann completed a public policy and engineering internship in Washington, D.C., sponsored by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. In the fall of 2012, she enrolled at the University of Minnesota Law School.
“I really like engineering, but I want to be a patent attorney so I can help engineers file their patent applications,” she says. “I want to be able to use my people skills, too, not just sit in front of a computer working with modeling software all day. I think it will be a really good fit for me.”
Success hasn't come easy for Ann. She has Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease (CMT), a neuromuscular disorder. She has very limited use of her limbs and requires a power wheelchair for mobility. Like all good engineers, however, Ann is a great problem solver and she has overcome numerous obstacles that stood between her and her rather lofty goals.
At St.Thomas, Ann lived in an accessible dorm room, utilized classroom note takers, hired personal care assistants, and employed various forms of assistive technology, including voice recognition software. She praises the university's disability services staff for working diligently to understand her requirements and meet her needs. They even helped Ann educate professors about her unique learning style so that she could have extra time to complete exams and assignments.
Of course there are difficult adjustments every college freshman must make – particularly when moving from a small high school to an urban campus – not to mention the academic challenges involved. During her first year in St. Paul, Ann often went home from physics class crying.
“It was a pretty steep learning curve,” she says. “I am from a really rural area and everything was new to me. It's crazy to think back about how much I had never experienced or didn't know. I guess I just waded through somehow.”
Over the next four years, no matter how high the barriers were, Ann never gave up, and she learned how to effectively advocate for herself. She credits PACER Center for providing the knowledge and resources that helped her secure the accommodations she needed to be successful. The results speak for themselves.
“I decided at the end of EX.I.T.E Camp that being an engineer would be great,” she says. “Now I have my engineering degree, but I can do much more than that. My goals just keep growing. Who knows where I'll end up?