“Take advantage of everything the university has to offer. Study abroad – anyone can do it. I think it’s essential to have a good grasp of what’s going on in the world. And it’s really fun.”
Tyler Walker has been in the news several times. He’s been featured in Rolling Stone magazine and The Boston Globe. He has met with President George W. Bush. He has his own website (www.tylerwalker.org if you’re curious). Why? He has competed in the X-Games, the World Cup, and the Paralympic Games. He has managed all of this as a UNH student in a wheelchair, and as if that’s not enough: he’ll graduate in four years this May with a degree in geography.
Tyler moved from Franconia, NH to Durham to begin his freshman year as a mechanical engineering major. At the last minute, he decided to take his second semester off to ski. He had been a part of the United States Disabilities Ski Team since high school and wanted to devote the time and energy he could only manage if he wasn’t taking classes. While on hiatus from school, he switched his major to political science. But when he took a class that summer with Alasdair Drysdale, he was hooked on geography. “He pulled me right in,” Tyler says. “He made it so interesting. It was the first time I went to class because I enjoyed it, not because I had to go.” Professor Drysdale inspired Tyler so much that he became a geography major his junior year. “It’s not just maps – it’s culture, language, people, history, how things change over time,” Tyler says. “You’re just learning about the world.”
Tyler was living in Smith Hall at that time and was very taken with the culture and diversity around him. Influenced by the many international studies majors he met in Smith, he decided to dual major in International Studies as well. It was a chance to fulfill the language competency, study abroad and explore the world that he was learning so much about. And if two majors were not enough, Tyler also declared minors in both political science and German.
Although Tyler knew only a little German, it didn’t hold him back from traveling to Lunaberg, Germany for a summer abroad program. “I had never had that kind of challenge before,” Tyler says. “Learning how you talk and how you think – it was like being in preschool, learning how to talk again.” It was an intensive two month program and when Tyler left, he felt comfortable with the language. “I was just starting to understand what peple were saying to me without having to ask them to repeat themselves!” While in Germany, Tyler met a family from Qatar. The family was in Germany because their five year old son, Ghanem, was receiving medical treatments for the same disability that Tyler was born with. The family, especially Ghanem, was excited to meet Tyler. “He sees me as infinitely cool and interesting, which is overwhelming,” he says. The curiosity and interest was mutual, and over his winter break, Tyler traveled to Qatar at the request of the family. Tyler spent two weeks with the family, answering questions and teaching Ghanem about getting around in a wheelchair and taking care of himself. In Ghanem’s culture, disabilities are often hidden. Tyler noticed that he received even more stares during his time in Qatar.
Tyler has continued to balance his education and his skiing career during his time at UNH. He took off time both his freshman and sophomore years, and by his junior year, he knew he wanted to graduate in four years. He made the decision to take a year off from the ski team. “Skiing is great,” he says. “I can have a lot of influence there, but it’s very limited. If I ever injure some part of my body and I can’t ski, I have nothing else.” He takes summer classes and is taking five classes both semesters of his senior year so he can finish on time. Tyler still competes, but only in the National Races so he can make time for his classes.
As if balancing that heavy load is not enough, Tyler still makes time for Northeast Passage, a UNH based program that offers disability-related recreational adaptive sports to people throughout New England. Although Tyler officially is taking time off from the ski team, he conditions multiple times a week with Tom Carr, the assistant director of Northeast Passage. When he graduates this May, there are many prospects waiting for Tyler. He’s going back to Germany – Munich this time – to enjoy some more Alp skiing and learn even more about the language and culture. He sees himself at the Paralympics in 2010 in Vancouver. He knows graduate school is in his future at some point, too. He hopes to become more involved in the movement to get adaptive sports in Qatar and change the stigma against people with disabilities. Wherever he ends up, he knows he won’t stop learning. “When I’m done with my degree, I’m not going to be done with it,” he says. “This education is a doorway into many other opportunities. I can take what I learned here and do anything I want.”