Determined freshman Daphne Frias refuses to let disability define her

In this issue’s Spotlight, meet Daphne Frias, who is aiming for a rich college experience before going to medical school. A strong advocate for herself and others, she says to the world, “No need to stare at the chair … Just ask me what you want to know!”

Q. Where were you born and raised?
A. Manhattan. I’m a long way from home. I went to public schools all my life right through high school. I had really good experiences—not without challenges, of course—but overall it was a good experience. Over time, I got to see how inclusion in the New York City public schools changed, so that was a really interesting process. I was always able to advocate for myself. And my family—they’re always strong advocators for me, as well.

Q. When did your family learn about your disability?
A. I was born at 27 weeks. I weighed 1 pound, 3 ounces. I was born with cerebral palsy, but I wasn’t diagnosed till the age of 3. I was enrolled in a special preschool. They provide early intervention services for children with disabilities. I was able to learn how to walk there. The first time I walked for my parents was during my preschool graduation.

Q. What types of stereotypes, even prejudices, have you run into?
A. I think the No. 1 thing is the staring and the inquisitive looks: “She’s so young, I wonder what’s wrong with her?” “She looks so normal on the outside.” I always try to answer, non-confrontationally, with a question: “Well, what is that? What does normal look like?” Until they come up with a definition that I don’t fit into, I think I’m doing perfectly fine. One of the things I encounter most is that people don’t think I can speak or hear them. I know this (disability) is something not everyone has a personal connection to or can relate to. I take it as an educational opportunity. I’m not going to do so aggressively, but in such a way that I change your perspective of what you think I am. My Mom and I ride the city bus and there’s a special section in the front corner just like on the Oswego Centro bus. People come up to my Mom and I can see it on their face what they’re coming to ask my Mom, with such a sorry tone in their voice. They ask my Mom if I can speak or hear them. My Mom comes to me and says, “Daphne, can you speak or hear them?” And I’m like, “Yes, I can!” (Laughs.) The look on their face is priceless. Usually after that and a lot of apologizing, there’s a lot of interesting conversation. I don’t take it personally. If I did, I’d be a lot grumpier of a person. And if you do, you’re letting their perception of you take over who you are. It just comes with the territory.

Q. When did you learn you had a gift for academics?
A. I knew I looked different on the outside, so I had to do anything I could to try to make those differences not be noticed. So if I excelled academically, people would only be talking about my academics and not what I looked like on the outside, to the point where they’d forget about my disability. That has happened often. Teachers planning a trip sometimes say, “Oh, we forgot we have to get an accessible accommodation for you.” I’ve always just loved learning. I realized at a young age how learning can be a gateway. It can break down barriers between people. That motivation really helped me get into a rigorous high school in the city, The Beacon School. I was challenged a lot academically, and those challenges helped me prepare for college.

Q. How did you choose SUNY Oswego?
A. I did very extensive research on every school that I applied to. So much of my life is uncertain and unknown that I wanted the place that I studied to be the place where I know I can be academically successful and thrive regardless of what’s going on at home, inside my body—all the variables I can’t control. I was really impressed by the science facilities here, the newly renovated Shineman building—that was extremely impressive. The number of research opportunities that undergraduates are allowed was something that impressed me as well. I just knew when I came to campus (for an April visit), this was going be the right place for me. So far I have not been wrong! I have to mention the lake. It does make me feel close to home. I live right by the Hudson River back home, so having the lake here is kind of a mirror of back home, so that made me feel comfortable. I made such good friends here this summer in EOP (Educational Opportunity Program). I knew this was home.

Q. What is your major?
A. I came in undeclared, but I do intend to major in biology. My future career interest is being a doctor. I do plan on going to medical school after my undergraduate education. The foundation for all this comes from my personal experience—being disabled, being in the hospital. I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t in the hospital, not always in intense physical care, but at least to visit my doctors. I have the perspective of what it is to be a patient, what the patient needs from their medical professional. I also intend to pick up a creative writing minor. Writing has been a really important outlet for me. I first started writing when my parents were getting a divorce. It was a huge outlet for me in expressing my emotions.

Q. What has the Educational Opportunity Program meant to you?
A. Most of its students, if not all, are first-generation college students. This is a really new and scary journey for them. EOP provides academic planning counselors, advisers for the first year. They kind of show you the ropes. Over the summer, we have wonderful peer leaders, upperclassmen who went through the EOP program. They talk to us about the tips and tricks of college—the “freshman 15,” how to speak to your professors, how to write a resume—entry-level skills you may not have had because you do come from a minority background. Being an EOP student is not about forgetting that, but embracing it, because we all do come from a similar background. EOP becomes a constant. There are people who look like you and have had similar experiences as you. EOP really gives you a sense of ownership of campus and the confidence that you can tread the campus with the same rights and respect as any other student, even if you didn’t grow up with the same privileges. Other students may think the summer program is giving us a leg up, but I see it as just leveling the playing field.

Q. Have you found any particular class especially riveting so far?
A. I’m taking “Human Biology,” which is a level 200 course. It’s a class that I’m currently excelling in, and that’s something that is reassuring. My schedule looked a bit wonky on paper and I was worried about it, but I really have connected well with all my professors.

Q. You did a recent video for Post-It Notes—what has been the reaction?
A. It has been a really great experience. I didn’t expect the reactions I’ve had over the past couple of days—it’s been really crazy! I wasn’t trying to prove anything in the video. I was just being myself. I’ve had people reach out to me and say that my story inspires them. That can be a little bit overwhelming. I am very grateful for all the feedback and all the love and support! Right off the bat, some of my biggest supporters were my EOP friends. Whoever watches the video, I hope they enjoy it and I thank them for watching it.

Q. What are some of your interests outside the classroom?
A. I love crafting and making things on my own, a lot of do-it-yourself projects. I just love having an idea and making it come to life on my own. I love to read. I love advocating for others, so I do intend to become a counseling peer at the Counseling Center once applications are open. I write a little bit of everything. I write a lot of poetry. I’ve also written a lot of short stories.

Q. What can you tell us about your family?
A. Both of my parents are Dominican—they were the first in their families to be born here. I live with my Mom (Josie); my older sister (Cassandra); and my younger brother (Ethan). We weren’t always close, but we’re very close now. My dog is Jake. We asked a lot of people who have dogs, “Is she a male or female?” They said she’s a male. We took Jake to the vet—she’s a female—when she already had a name. So she’s Jake! It fits her! (Laughs.)