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Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2020 graduates.
The road to receiving a degree is different for everyone, and for the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies Dean’s Medalist, Morgan Leland, it’s been a winding one.
Leland is congenitally blind and grew up in St. Petersburg, Florida, where she attended public school until seventh grade before transfering to the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind, where she completed high school.
“I struggled in public school because, like many blind students, teachers thought I wasn’t blind enough to need braille,” said Leland. “Illiteracy is a big problem in the blind community because people who aren’t taught braille end up relying on audio, which isn’t technically reading. I thrived at FSDB, though.”
While she felt the school didn’t prepare her for life in a sighted world, she is grateful the school allowed her to take risks and find her personal limits.
Leland struggled to live on her own, attend community college and work for a couple of months once she graduated high school, but circumstances changed her course.
“After I was attacked on the way home from a grocery store trip and became pregnant as a result, I took the family path and began working full time to support my son,” said Leland. “Soon after, I met my first husband and we spent several years working and raising our family.”
Leland still wanted to get a degree and after working in a position she loved at Intel for a few years she decided to work for the University of Phoenix in order to receive free tuition. She came to the realization that she didn’t just want a degree, though, she wanted an education.
“In 2013, a bad situation with a manager who did not like making accommodations for my blindness on team builders turned into an incredible opportunity when I realized I was finally free to pursue an in-person education,” said Leland.
When she started her degree at Arizona State University, Leland only knew she wanted to end up at law school, but in the meantime she didn’t know what she wanted to pursue. It wasn’t until after taking a few courses in philosophy that she chose to pursue the discipline as her major.
“My love of philosophy is more than just a personal connection to the people in the department, though,” said Leland. “Philosophy is inextricably linked to science and progress, at least in my view.”
She was able to study abroad in Greece and Italy during the summer of 2017, and while she was there she not only made unforgettable memories, but also learned a lot about herself.
“In principle it was to explore the origins of philosophy, to occupy the same physical place in the world where philosophers like Socrates lived,” Leland said. “And that still compelled me, but this adventure [had] become so much more than my original desire to experience the places I read so much about. As I planned for this trip, I had no way to know what I didn't know. My biggest fear was getting left behind, but that turned out to be the least of my worries. Now, I know the right questions to ask, a better way to communicate with my peers and professors, and I have more confidence in myself and my unique abilities.”
Leland has not only gone through school with a disability, but also as a mother of four. She spent her spare time volunteering at her kids’ schools, helping them with homework, making dinner and staying connected with her teenage children. Yet despite the fact she didn’t have free time for clubs or campus activities, she stood out.
“What distinguishes Morgan is that she is an educator, that she is committed to the potential of higher education for producing broader social changes, and that she is personally devoted to changing the content of, social relations in, and standard operating procedure of academia,” said philosophy lecturer Shawn Klein.
The philosophy faculty have said she is always willing to help her classmates and have praised her clear writing abilities. Her honors thesis was repeatedly mentioned when discussing her accolades.
“Morgan wrote a beautifully crafted honors thesis that achieves her aspiration to educate others, to dramatically shift the way we think about disability, to recognize that the stigmatization of disability affects other marginalized identity, and to demonstrate the relevance of what we do in higher education to effecting social change,” said philosophy professor Cheshire Calhoun.
Leland will graduate with her bachelor’s degree in philosophy with a concentration in morality, politics and law this semester. We caught up with her to ask about her time at ASU.
Question: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?
Answer: I struggled over this question because I learned so much. My dream of sitting in an actual brick-and-mortar classroom and getting an education was fulfilled beyond my wildest expectations. I hate to say that, even though my overall experience at ASU was positive, my answer to this question is negative. I learned that most people in the academic community do not think of disability beyond accommodations. That is, unlike other groups, disability is not viewed as a socio-political issue. I am a nontraditional student who came back to school at age 36, so I have a lot of life experience in the nonacademic world. I always thought of minority-group struggles as including disability and felt a kinship with other minority groups. I was not prepared for the lack of support for the disability community on campus compared with the extremely progressive support of other social groups. I felt this so much so that it was the focus of my Barrett thesis.
Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?
A: Philosophy was one of many introductory courses I took during my exploratory phase. I started off thinking it would be a fun foray into imaginative thought, but Professor Klein quickly recalibrated my expectations. Instead of unguided, random insights, philosophy turned out to be the logical development of ideas with creative thought at its core. PHI 101: Introduction to Philosophy was also the most rigorous course I had taken thus far. Professor Klein’s lectures were so entertaining, but regular quizzes and peer-reviewed essays balanced out the atmosphere. Still, I did not consider majoring in philosophy until I took Principles of Sound Reasoning with Professor Bolton. While she was teaching us about constructing logical arguments, she used all this random knowledge that left me feeling like she was possibly the smartest human being I’d ever met. I “blame” Dr. Klein and Dr. Bolton for igniting my love of philosophy. I started college worried I might not find a major I really connected with, but as I chatted with professors and grad students who attended the colloquium just before spring break, I realized those were my people and had been for a long time.
Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?
A: Education was something I dreamed about for over a decade, so I had no trouble motivating myself to work hard when I finally got the opportunity. Still, it’s surprising how many of my friends encouraged me to relax and not take it so seriously. They kept telling me no one cares about GPA and so I shouldn’t, either. As a blind person, I’m used to working hard to prove that I belong in a sighted world, so I did not listen, but it still got me down sometimes. Like, why am I doing this if no one cares? Ultimately, I did it for myself. My advice: Don’t let people talk you out of passionately pursuing your goals.
Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?
A: I used to spend time between classes at the Disability Resource Center because it was the only place I felt I belonged. I didn’t have a lot of friends there or anything, I just wasn’t sure where else to be. Now, I spend my free time in the philosophy department in Coor Hall. I cannot see well enough to recognize people as they pass, so I often feel lonely out in public. I know the voices of so many people in the philosophy department, though, that I can tell who’s around anyway. If I do not hear them first, they often say hello to me. I know it sounds like a lame thing to get so excited about, but having someone say hello to me breaks through my solitary veil and makes me feel connected to the world around me. I’m not sure if that’s a blind thing or just a me thing.
Q: What are your plans after graduation?
A: I am very thankful that vocational rehabilitation paid for my undergraduate degree. Law school is part of my academic plan, so they’d pay for that, too, but I want to take the burden off of the taxpayers. My plan now is to study hard for the LSAT so I can get a competitive score. If I can’t qualify for scholarships or stipends based on my LSAT score combined with my undergraduate accomplishments, I probably should find a different path. I am also interested in studying overseas for a year or two because I enjoyed being immersed in other cultures on my study abroad trip so much. With diligence and an open mind, I know I will find my niche.
Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?
A: I am smart enough to know that I should not unilaterally decide how best to direct this money. There is so much need in the world, especially right now. So much pain and hardship, it makes my heart heavy. If I had control of this money, I would establish a committee of volunteers with different backgrounds from various cultures, economic levels and professions who would hear ideas in the form of business plans and decide which one(s) to sponsor. The criteria would be impact, efficiency and urgency. People working on the projects could be paid a reasonable salary, but there would be no prizes or winners.