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Convocation medalist doesn’t let challenges limit possibilities

June 30, 2021
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By Stacey Makortoff (Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies) 

If you didn’t know her, you could easily dismiss Alexandra Patzak as an exceptional doctoral graduate who is being awarded with the top honour of a dean’s convocation medal. This is an incredible achievement to be celebrated—and one that Patzak accomplished alongside her unique experience as a student with a visual impairment navigating university life.

Born in Germany with a degenerative eye disease, when Patzak started SFU’s educational psychology PhD program in 2015, she only had about 20 per cent of her vision left. Essentially, she sees some shapes and colours in her peripheral vision and has difficulties seeing anything in bright sunlight.

Throughout her educational career, Patzak struggled to find support and appropriate assistance for accommodating her disability. While undertaking her master’s degree in educational psychology at the University of Vienna in Austria, where she researched the concept of imposter syndrome, Patzak was challenged by the amount of reading materials. She would find the readings in the library, spend hours scanning texts to PDFs so she could open them, make the text larger, and finally read them on her computer. It was only when she was nearing completion of her degree that she learned that the library had a new support service that should have been scanning the books for her.

Says Patzak, “I didn’t know anyone else who had a disability like mine. I didn’t know if help was available.”

Because Patzak had little support throughout her education, she learned to adapt and cope so that she could work within a system that wasn’t made for her as a learner. She learned to grasp concepts more quickly as she didn’t have time to read more than necessary.

As it was, it took her more time and effort to complete her master’s degree, yet she did so with honours. When she was accepted to SFU she was one of only three graduate students in the Faculty of Education who received multi-year funding.

Patzak chose to undertake her doctoral studies at SFU to better understand how learners self-handicap and how self-handicapping affects learning overall. For example, one area of self-handicapping most people are familiar with is procrastination. Patzak utilized software to measure self-handicapping in action which sets the stage for developing additional supports for those choosing to engage in self-handicapping behaviours. Her research provided a novel way for researchers to measure and understand these behaviours.

She was nervous about relocating to Vancouver, where she didn’t know anyone, and English wasn’t her first language. However, she received a lot of support from her classmates and accomodations from her instructors which made her doctoral experience easier and more fun.

“My friends would help me find the rooms for my classes, point out and save me a place to sit, and even walk me to the right bus station to ensure I caught the right bus,” explains Patzak. “I would often come to class and people would call out to me, ‘Alex, you’re sitting over here!’”

She also discovered and reached out to SFU’s Centre for Accessible Learning (CAL) right away. They provided her with print-to-speech software that she says she cannot live without. Patzak then paid it forward by working with CAL and the Student Learning Commons as a Student Learning Facilitator for undergraduate students experiencing academic difficulties. This position complemented her skills and  doctoral studies.

“I cannot say enough about the Centre for Accessible Learning,” says Patzk. “From my work with them, I can see how much they really care about students.”

Additionally, she found incredible support through her colleagues and mentors in the Educational Psychology Lab.

“We worked and supported each other as a team. We helped each other with data collection, reminded each other to apply for awards, and we all became friends. That is what I enjoyed the most,” says Patzak.

Once again, Patzak is graduating at the top of her class and will be giving a speech at her convocation ceremony. She started a new job as Assistant Professor at George Mason University, where she teaches graduate-level courses and continues to advance her research through collaborations with researchers at SFU and Monash University, leveraging learning analytics to provide motivational scaffolds to enhance learning in virtual learning settings.

Everyday she finds the courage and faith to continue in this career path, making adjustments within a system that doesn’t adjust easily. She hopes to pave the way for other people, so they have fewer struggles or know that they can reach their goals.­­­ “Academia wasn’t built for me, but I’m still here,” says, Patzak.