Significant steps: Grad to realize dream of walking across commencement stage

Jennifer Ulrich has long been known, as she puts it, as “the girl in the wheelchair with the black dog.”

The UW-Green Bay senior and her assistance dog, Wilson, have become a familiar presence on campus during the past several years, as Ulrich has pursued her degree in Psychology. But come Saturday, Ulrich will be known according to a different designation.

The girl who walked across the stage.

She’ll make the trek despite spina bifida and cerebral palsy, which have kept her in a wheelchair since childhood. She’ll make it because of an unflinching personal determination, a special mentor — and some seriously goal-oriented roommates.

“The first thing we did was talk about what our dreams and goals are,” Ulrich said, recalling an initial conversation with new roomies a year ago. “I just plain old wanted to learn how to walk.”

Getting there

Ulrich says a UW-Green Bay personal conditioning class was a key turning point in her physical and mental journey toward walking. She took the course with UW-Green Bay Associate Lecturer Jane Birr, a life coach and author with a passion for fitness and helping and motivating others. Birr, a 1985 UW-Green Bay alumna, helped Ulrich “stay on my goals and kick me in the butt,” Ulrich recalls with a laugh. Birr also told her to set a date for when she wanted to walk. For Ulrich, that part was easy.

“I thought graduation would be a perfect time.”

Of course, getting there wouldn’t be so easy. Stretching and strengthening often were painful, and there were times Ulrich wanted to quit, she said.  And although she credits Birr for keeping her going, Birr is quick to deflect that credit back to Ulrich.

“Jenni does not quit,” Birr said. “I think she deleted that button in her head! She finds a way. Jenni charted out a big vision; now people are rallying behind her to help. But in the end, it is the daily hard work that Jenni puts in when no one is watching that sets her apart.

“Many people say that (they) want to reach a goal, and then (they) quit. Jenni persists.”

Standing — and swimming, and climbing — before she could walk

Birr first noticed that persistence three years ago, when Ulrich made it her goal to obtain a new wheelchair that would allow her to stand. Her insurance company balked at the chair’s $40,000 price tag, but Ulrich was undeterred. She kept at it, and was able to obtain the device through the Wisconsin Department of Vocational Rehabilitation. It was another turning point, Birr said, in terms of both physical goals and attitude.

“She has since started her journey to become a black belt and has won numerous very large trophies,” Birr said. “She has swam with dolphins, climbed the wall at the Kress (Events Center) twice, took up skiing … the list goes on and on. She is jumping in, having fun and working hard, so if she says she is going to walk, I sure am not going to bet against her.”

Ulrich and Birr worked hard together, but Ulrich realized she’d need more help to achieve her goal. It took some convincing to get her doctors to send her to physical therapy — but again, persistence paid off. Now Ulrich attends physical therapy twice a week, preparing for her big moment.

“I have what I call an old granny walker,” she said with a laugh. “I’m 24 years old and I’ve never walked (in my adult life).”

Thirty-eight feet

As excited as she is to finally achieve her goal, Ulrich admits she’s very nervous about Saturday. She’ll walk with Wilson beside her, and UW-Green Bay Disability Services Coordinator Lynn Niemi behind her, wheeling her wheelchair (if she falls, Ulrich explains, she tends to fall backward).

Ulrich can walk about 38 feet at a time, she said — “but it’ll feel like a mile to me.”

A mile may be defined in the legs of the walker, but a milestone doubtlessly will be apparent to all present Saturday. For those watching — and for anyone pursuing a goal — Ulrich has some sage advice.

“Keep a positive attitude. If you’re positive and happy, it’s like a magnet,” she said. “Where there’s a will, there’s a way. If you can see yourself doing it, then it’s possible.”

Update: Ulrich achieved her goal of walking across the commencement stage May 18. For more on her achievement, including a video of the big moment, click here.