University of Wisconsin-Madison: Despite adversity, recent graduate ‘never had any doubt’ she would earn degree

On a November evening three years ago, Reagan Patrowicz was waiting at a median on University Avenue in Madison when a car veered out of control and struck her.

Patrowicz, a UW–Madison sophomore at the time, remembers little about the crash other than sparks as the car jumped a curb, then headlights coming toward her. She spent several nights in a hospital and later endured two surgeries due to her injuries. To continue her studies, she needed multiple accommodations on campus.

The traumatic episode was one of several obstacles Patrowicz overcame during an undergraduate career marked by challenges — challenges that altered her experience at UW–Madison but did not derail it. A few weeks ago, Patrowicz earned a bachelor’s degree in geography at winter commencement.

“What impresses me the most about Reagan is not any single thing,” says her father, Bill Patrowicz, who was at the Kohl Center Dec. 19 to watch his daughter cross the stage. “Rather, it is about the thousand bumps suffered and defeated along the way. I am inspired by her strength and fortitude.”

Reagan Patrowicz says the challenges she overcame taught her lessons that could help other students navigate difficult times.

“I learned the importance of communicating — with your friends, with your professors, with your family members,” Patrowicz says. “You have to let them know what you’re dealing with so that they can support you. That’s especially important in a medical situation, but with everything else, too.”

Arriving at UW
Patrowicz grew up in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York. She chose UW–Madison for its academics and because her father, a two-time Big Ten champion in the javelin throw, enjoyed his time on campus. He graduated in 1991 with a bachelor’s degree in psychology.

Reagan Patrowicz arrived at UW–Madison in the fall of 2018. She already was dealing with a rare connective tissue disorder — undiagnosed at the time — that had caused chronic joint pain for years and required two wrist surgeries in high school. During her time at the UW, she underwent five more surgeries, including the two due to the car crash.

On the night the car struck her, Patrowicz and two friends had just been dropped off by a city bus near University Avenue and Campus Drive after shopping at Target. They were heading back to their residence hall and had stopped on a sidewalk in a median to wait on a stoplight.

The driver of the car struck a curb, causing a tire to blow, according to the police report. The vehicle then swerved across multiple lanes of traffic and jumped onto the median, hitting a stoplight pole, then Patrowicz.

“It appeared the car just went out of control,” remembers Griffin Bianchi, a UW–Madison senior and one of the friends with Patrowicz that night. “There was this horrible noise, and then when I looked over at Reagan, she was on the ground, seemingly unconscious.”

Patrowicz spent three days at UW Hospital. She suffered whiplash and a concussion but, remarkably, no broken bones. She endured a month in a neck collar and later had surgeries on a hip and a knee due to lingering injuries.

As terrible as the crash was, all three friends believe they escaped a worse fate by mere inches.

“I think that light pole saved our lives,” says senior Tanishka Jain, the third member of the group of friends. “The light pole was completely knocked over, which meant it took most of the impact.”

The driver was cited for failing to maintain control of his vehicle and for driving without insurance.

Long recovery
In the days after the crash, Patrowicz connected with the McBurney Disability Resource Center, an office within the Division of Student Affairs. The center works to secure disability-related accommodations and support so that students can participate fully in campus life.

For Patrowicz, that included a shuttle bus to and from classes and elevator access to floors in Van Hise Hall that typically are accessible only by stairs. She also was granted additional time to complete exams.

“They were great to work with,” Patrowicz says of the McBurney Center. “Every time I called, they picked up right away and fit me in. They were always very accommodating, which obviously is their job, but it was nice to have my issues addressed so quickly and so well.”

During her final semester on campus, Patrowicz received a scholarship offered through the center. Private donors helped establish these scholarships, which were created out of an understanding that students with disabilities often spend significant funds and time managing their health and well-being, on top of paying for an education, says McBurney director Mari Magler.

“With scholarships, we hope to defray the cost of attendance and give students greater opportunities to focus their time and monies on their individual needs,” Magler says.

Patrowicz says she would have needed additional accommodations following a wrist surgery while on campus — she was in a cast up to her armpit — but the pandemic had happened by then.

“I’m not a fan of virtual classes, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise while I was recovering from surgery,” she says.

Graduation came early
Due to medical issues, Patrowicz did not attend classes during the spring semester of 2021. Still, she managed to graduate early, completing her degree in six semesters plus one summer course.

“I can’t imagine going through what she did and still earning that degree,” Bianchi says. “She’s really exceptional.”

“She could have made so many excuses, yet she didn’t,” Jain says. “She just got it all done.”

Patrowicz says she would not have been able to graduate in six semesters without her professors being so understanding and granting her extensions. She gives special thanks to Bill Gartner, a lecturer in the Department of Geography, who gave her extra time following her hip surgery to complete her final project in his capstone course.

Patrowicz says she learned to be upfront with instructors about her challenges.

“I would tell them right away that I was dealing with chronic medical issues. It made it easier later in the semester if I needed extra considerations. I’d encourage other students to do this — not just with professors but with friends. Talk it out.”

Bill Patrowicz says he watched in awe as his daughter “wrestled all the alligators” that came her way. That included not just the car crash and surgeries, but also the upheaval caused by COVID-19 and more than a dozen emergency room visits due to the connective tissue order. He thinks his daughter’s experience offers important lessons.

“Don’t be ashamed to ask for help — ever,” he says. “In fact, ask before you think that you need it. Also, have someone to hold you accountable. Sometimes we miss the obvious when we are suffering. Have someone to help you remember to call the doctors, the counselors, the professors.”

Long-awaited diagnosis
Last year, Reagan Patrowicz finally received a diagnosis for her chronic pain: Ehlers–Danlos syndrome, a rare connective tissue disorder.

“Now that I actually know what I’m dealing with, it’s a little easier,” she says. “It’s going to be something I’ll live with the rest of my life. I’m still learning how to deal with it.”

She plans to apply for graduate school but is taking a break to address medical issues.

“Everything I went through was definitely stressful and caused a lot of anxiety,” she says. “But I never had any doubt I would get my undergrad degree.”

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