CECS graduate Melissa Schwager overcomes obstacles to graduate, reach goals

December 12, 2016

After working on a production line for an automotive company and having the plant close, Melissa Schwager made a decision— she was going to go to college.

Always excelling in math and science and encouraged by her late father, she wanted to be an engineer at a young age. But she wasn’t sure of the career path she wanted to take until her time on the production line.

“While working there, I had conversations with engineers. I gave my input on possible solutions and they listened,” she said. “It gave me what I needed to know college was the next step for me to take.”

Schwager said she chose UM-Dearborn because of the engineering program’s reputation and the co-op program.

But what the computer and electrical engineering major didn’t realize at the time is how much the UM-Dearborn community would help her along her six-year journey, as well.

Schwager earns her undergraduate degree this month and has and landed a full-time engineering position at Ford Motor Co.

With all her papers turned in, finals taken and undergraduate courses in the books, she had time to reflect on her time on campus. To Schwager, it’s meant following through with goals, gaining confidence and learning by example.

One month prior to starting college, Schwager was in a car accident that caused a traumatic brain injury, sight loss and shattered bones, which temporarily left her in need of 24/7 nurse care.

“I went into the Admissions Office in a wheelchair with my nurse at my side. I was going to earn that degree even though people—even those who I knew had my best interests at heart—cautioned me to put everything on hold,” said Schwager, now 31. “But I needed to keep going. When I was little, my dad would always say to never stop trying, to never give up. Life throws everyone obstacles. What matters is how you react to them.”

Schwager, at first, said she didn’t want accommodations. But she realized that seeking out assistance was not only essential; it also helped her progress—professionally and personally. Through her determination and collaboration with Disability Services and her professor to record class lectures, she earned an A in her first college course.

“For my first class, I took CALC II. I heard how hard it was from others and I was nervous, especially because there was already so much I had to re-learn because of my brain injury,” Schwager said. “Knowing I could get an A and knowing there were people on campus who would help me get access to the tools I needed to succeed let me know that I was in the right place.  My doctors, who now call me a miracle patient, also believe that focusing on school may have helped with my recovery.”

Schwager said when she faced hardships, she found inspiration to keep going from faculty and staff— especially the late Computer and Electrical Engineering Associate Professor Nattu (Narasimhamurthi Natarajan).

“He taught four of the classes I had. He was always there for us, his students. One time he came to campus the day after he got out of the hospital to help us, to see us. I thought that if he has the strength to keep moving forward, I do too,” said Schwager, who was a member of the Intelligent Systems Club, which Nattu founded and advised. “He was a great teacher and his lessons went beyond the classroom. One that will always stay with me is that he said, ‘To every problem there is a solution.’”

On Dec. 17, Schwager will walk up to the Fieldhouse stage—another goal of hers—for her degree. And she’ll start the next chapter of her life.

“But I’ll never forget this chapter. It’s shaped who I am,” she said. “Don’t ever give up on your hopes and dreams. With God, willpower and strength, you can make it past anything.”

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