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No Degree of Difficulty

Accessibility advocate strives to earn more college degrees

Alina Poklad, G’24, uses a wheelchair to navigate the world, but she has never let that prevent her from satisfying her thirst for knowledge.

Once forced to take middle and high school classes from home because her school wasn’t accessible to wheelchair users, Alina is now on the verge of earning her third master’s degree – and first from an American university.

“Because I had to struggle for many things, it made me understand that you need to be more educated,” said Alina, who is pursuing a degree in computer science at BSU.

Alina has spinal muscular atrophy, a genetic disorder that causes her muscles to weaken. She grew up in Estonia as the country gained independence from the Soviet Union; at the time, her homeland had no accessibility standards. While Estonia has since made great strides, Alina graduated high school one year before her school became accessible.

After earning undergraduate and graduate degrees in information technology (to jumpstart her career) and cultural studies (fulfilling a personal passion), Alina sought to study abroad. Her brother lives in Massachusetts, and Bridgewater stood out as the ideal school.

“It’s not only the computer science classes, it’s getting the opportunity to work and use your knowledge,” Alina said of what she appreciates about BSU. “It’s also so multicultural. ... I think it’s exciting because you understand the world better.”

Alina juggles work as a graduate assistant on BSU’s intranet platform with learning new programming skills in class and completing yet another degree – a PhD. in cultural studies with a focus on disability studies from Tallinn University in Estonia.

In collaboration with Student Accessibility Services, she presented her research on disability representation in the media and the importance of studying disability culture and history. She’s also shared her Estonian culture with BSU and participated in events such as the Lunar New Year’s celebration.

It’s a busy schedule, but one Alina is adept at managing.

“Alina has a strong work ethic and easily adapts to the use of a wide variety of technical platforms,” said her BSU supervisor, Jack Welch, '16, G'18, the administrator for the BridgeNet intranet platform. “Together, we have been successful creating advanced applications embedded in BridgeNet.”

Alina, who came to Bridgewater with experience working with databases, expanded her skills by helping develop new features such as a virtual front counter for the Registrar’s Office. She’s also exploring ways to positively make use of artificial intelligence.

“I learned so much from Jack,” she said. “It’s a 180-degree turn in my career. It’s very new and useful for me.”

After graduation, Alina hopes to stay in the U.S., where she no doubt has the academic skills and cultural experiences will help her overcome any obstacle standing in her way.

“I gained knowledge and experience, but I can also say it’s made my mind broader,” she said.

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