Aja Capel: Different Is Amazing


Fourteen-year-old Aja Capel is the winner of the 2018 Fred J. Epstein Youth Achievement Award, the honor bestowed annually by Smart Kids with LD on a student who overcomes learning challenges to achieve greatness • In this excerpt from her acceptance speech, the Urbana, IL teen sheds light on how her learning differences have contributed to her success

James Baldwin once said “a journey is called a journey because you cannot know what you will discover on the journey, what you will do with what you find, or what you find will do to you.”

On my fantastic journey I found me and my voice. I am a different thinker. I have what I prefer to call learning differences or “diffabilities” because my learning abilities are different—not less than; just different, and I believe different is amazing.

I have dyslexia, dysgraphia, ADHD, CAPD, and visual disturbances. That simply means I process information differently than most people. I think out of the box and I problem solve out of the box. Frankly, I try to destroy the box. The problem is school is very much in the box.

As a different thinker, school is often very long and many days are painful. My classes are often weakness-based and many times there are no strengths for me to call upon to complete the required work. I can see it in your faces, you are wondering, with all of this, then how did I get here, how did I succeed.

Leaning In

I fight every day through self-advocacy. I insist upon knowing the purpose of the assignment and then fight to be allowed to draw on at least one strength to complete it. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. It is just my journey.

My whole life I have insisted on dancing to the beat of my own drum despite how inconvenient it has made it for my teachers and my school.

I refuse to be limited. I refuse to give up. I have fought to be working two years ahead because that is where my brain needed to be. I insist on approaching my classes from a strengths perspective and have asked my teachers to stop focusing on what I can’t do and help me learn what I can do and then let me.

STEM Success

When I was diagnosed with learning diffabilities I found my brave and leaned in. Because school is not made for me I try to fill my time with my passions, humbly serve others, and use my blessings. I learned early on when I focus on leading and serving others I don’t focus on myself and my challenges, like school, so much.

I have started 4 robotics teams. I have mentored and taught robotics at my neighborhood Children’s Science Museum for 4 years. I won a Youth Service America/Disney Be Inspired grant and put on a two-day drone building STEM exposure event for under-represented kids of color in my community. I impacted 14 lives. I was the youngest winner ever of the 2018 Central Illinois Chapter NCWIT Aspirations Award, and I was the first from the chapter to win a National Award. I just found out I won an AspireIT $3,300 grant to put on two summer computer programming camps for girls of color this summer. I will impact 48 lives. This past week I was offered a paid summer internship with Caterpillar.

STEM just comes natural, like breathing. STEM allows me to live in my strengths and have self-confidence. Robotics has become my refuge, from school and the teachers who just don’t quite get me. When I am creating robots and teaching kids I feel invincible. This is what makes school bearable. I immerse myself in everything I can that uses my strengths outside of school.

I have realized what I put after “I am…” defines me and when I say I am different and I have diffabilities it is a blessing because my different has helped me see there are different ways to do things, learn things, solve things, and that same is boring. Without different we wouldn’t have new, unique, and exciting. We wouldn’t move forward. I wouldn’t change my different for anything in this world.

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