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As he graduates among the top of the Quinnipiac University (QU) Class of 2020, with a full scholarship to attend The School of Law at QU in the fall, Lucas Sundwall credits his road to academic gains to significant support given to him by Guilford Public Schools, from 1st grade through graduation. (Photo courtesy of Lucas Sundwall )
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Many in the Guilford community first got to know Lucas Sundwall during a difficult time in his boyhood. Now, as he graduates among the top of the Quinnipiac University (QU) Class of 2020, with a full scholarship to attend The School of Law at QU in the fall, no doubt Guilford will be thrilled to see just how much success this young man has attained.
For his part, Lucas credits his road to academic gains to the significant support given by Guilford Public Schools (GPS) from 1st grade through graduation.
Back around Thanksgiving of 2004, when Lucas was 7 and a student at Melissa Jones Elementary School, he began gradually losing the ability to walk. A scan of his brain revealed a benign astrocytoma, but by the time he went in for surgery, he was mostly paralyzed.
“I’m not sure how much damage the surgery did with them trying to remove the tumor, or if by that time the paralysis had already set in thoroughly,” says Lucas, who today has limited use of his arms and navigates the world using a mechanized wheelchair controlled mainly by shoulder movements.
Lucas still gratefully remembers the support he and his family received from the Guilford community following his boyhood diagnosis and surgery. When he was healthy enough to first leave the hospital, Guilford got behind the Sundwalls with a community fundraising event for Lucas that filled the huge parking field behind St. George’s Catholic Church with supporters.
Now 22, Lucas says his academic success has been built off of a specialized framework provided by GPS beginning in 1st grade.
“I came back half-way or two-thirds of the way through 1st grade, and obviously having missed so much schooling, I was quite far behind,” says Lucas. “The Guilford school system immediately put me into a program for students who were behind, and got me into a reading room to get my reading up to the level of my peers. By the time I was in 2nd grade, I was on par with my fellow students in terms of my reading and writing ability.”
Lucas feels the immediate assistance of GPS, together with years of continued support—from providing the latest tech to one-on-one paraprofessional education assistance—created a strong foundation for his love of learning.
“Guilford school system was extremely helpful and very reactive to my needs as someone who, at that time, was still struggling with health-related issues,” he says. “I personally think I owe a lot of my current academic abilities not only to my own efforts but to the willingness and eagerness of the school system here in Guilford to really accommodate my needs.”
By the time Lucas entered Guilford High School (GHS) with the Class of 2016, he was a top student, despite some health hurdles that continued during high school.
“I’ve had to deal with being out of school for medical things; for example in my population, especially people that need wheelchairs, [we] develop pressure ulcers,” he says. “I had a number of those, especially during my senior year, when I had to be hospitalized [for] a month and a half.”
During that time, GPS assisted Lucas academically by providing an app that had him in the classroom, virtually, during his hospitalization.
“It wasn’t Skype, but it was something like that. And my para, who had been with me since sophomore year, would go to each class with an iPad provided by the high school, so I could attend the lecture even though I was absent,” says Lucas.
Lucas graduated from GHS as a member of the National Honor Society. He selected QU for college due to its robust legal studies offerings and proximity to his family’s Guilford home, where he lives while studying. He’s currently using a speech-to-text software program, Dragon Naturally Speaking, to produce his work.
“Again I’d like to give credit to Guilford schools, as they were the ones to introduce me, in 3rd or 4th grade, to assisted technology [and] hired [a specialist] who was very involved in working with me in assisted technology. They got me really involved in speech-to-text programs, even though I was initially very resistant to it,” says Lucas.
He says the resistance arose from dealing with software programs that were relatively new at the time, and not as accurate in translating voice dictation as today’s.
Lucas adds that GPS not only hired a specialist to assist him, but continued updating both software and computer systems capable of supporting the latest tech, including his introduction to Dragon software versions.
“So again, I’d like to give credit to the school system for not only making the program available, but pushing me to get the most out of it. Now I realize how important that was for making me as independent as possible,” he says.
Lucas graduates from QU in May 2020 (at press time, the ceremony date was yet to be determined) with a bachelor of arts in law in society and a bachelor of arts in history. Lucas has also received the 2020 QU Legal Studies Book Award, given to a senior law society student with the highest grade point average—his is 3.93. He was named to the Dean’s List for the entirety of his undergraduate career. Lucas is a member of the Quinnipiac chapter of Lambda Epsilon Chi (the national honor society for paralegal/legal studies students) and Phi Alpha Theta (an honor society for undergraduate and graduate students of history). Earlier this year, Lucas was accepted to the School of Law at QU, and on Feb. 25, he learned he was awarded the School of Law Legal Scholar Award. The scholarship award will provide full tuition payment for the three years of study he will undertake at the law school, beginning in the fall of 2020.
Lucas hopes to specialize in advocacy law for people with disabilities, an area in which he has both personal experience and intern experience. For two summers, he worked as an intern at the Center for Disability Rights in West Haven, an organization that, he notes, “advocates on behalf of people with disabilities and their issues at the local, state, and national level.” Currently, Lucas is also a member of the center’s Board of Directors.
“The previous head of the center is an attorney, and he would provide legal services for disabled clients. That’s the sort of thing I’m looking to get into,” says Lucas. “It’s advocacy law for people with disabilities, especially with regard to the ADA and other aspects. While we have certainly made great strides in the last 30 years that ADA has been enacted, there are still significant problems that I myself encounter, for example, not being able to enter certain buildings.”
Due to safety protocols in place at the new GHS building, Lucas actually encountered less-than-independent accessibility at the school while he was a student there, learning he needed to rely on his paraprofessional to enter the building rather than pushing a button found on most public buildings. As a GHS student, he wrote a letter citing ADA and sent it to the Board of Education to seek assistance. He’d just turned 18.
“They noted that it was [less accessible] due to security purposes. I don’t want to disparage the school system as, other than that, they’ve been very accommodating to my needs. But that’s sort of what inspired me more to pursue advocacy through a law degree,” says Lucas. “Some of the accessibility issues there really reinforced in my mind that I had to be my own advocate, and that there were certain things that, despite the law, need to be changed to give an equal playing field to people with disabilities.”
Lucas says those living with disabilities face issues of concern that may not otherwise rise to the forefront, unless someone is there to advocate for them.
“I don’t blame [non-disabled] people for not thinking that way, because they don’t really have a basis for that unless, for example, they know somebody that has a disability or they’re involved in that community,” he says.
Lucas also thanks his mom and dad, Audrey and Raymond, for their support.
“I’m extremely excited, and so are they, for the next step for my plan for the future,” he says.
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