UNK grad Catrina Gray uses learning disability to inspire others

Catrina Gray
Catrina Gray

Catrina Gray will speak 7 p.m. Wednesday (Nov. 14) in Copeland Hall Room 130 as part of Disability Awareness Week at UNK. Her presentation is titled “Who am I?”
Disability Awareness Week is sponsored by the Collegians for Integration and Accessibility student organization, UNK Academic Success Offices and Division of Student Affairs. All events are free and open to the public.

UNK Communications

KEARNEY – The high school version of Catrina Gray would have told you there’s no way she could graduate from a four-year college.

She struggled with dyslexia, which impacted her reading, writing and communication skills and made academic success seem like an insurmountable challenge.

“It caused a lot of anger because I didn’t know how to control being dyslexic,” said Gray, who was diagnosed with the learning disorder in second grade.

The young girl didn’t understand why she was pulled from her regular classroom and moved to a “learning disabilities” room, where she remained through high school. After graduating in 1997, she enrolled at a private college and earned a veterinary technician certificate, “just to prove to people that I could do it.”

“And then I did nothing with that education,” she said with a laugh.

Although she never pursued that career, the accomplishment taught Gray something important about herself.

“I had to accept that I’m dyslexic,” she said. “It’s never going to go away. It can get better, I just need to learn how to manage it.”

Gray realized her diet, sleep patterns and stress levels impacted the severity of her dyslexia on a day-to-day basis. This was a major breakthrough. She recognized dyslexia is part of who she is, “but it doesn’t define who I am.”

Gray, who was born in Germany and raised in an Air Force family, served in the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps while searching for her purpose in life.

She moved to Kearney in 2009, landed a job in photography and “fell in love with it.” That led to the launch of her own business.

“Then I learned I knew nothing about a camera,” she said.

When her studio lease expired, the single mother enrolled in the photography program at Central Community College then transferred to the University of Nebraska at Kearney in 2014.

Photography was a good fit. She excelled with projects, but testing continued to be an issue. So, she reached out for help.

Gray utilized every academic support service she could find at UNK and received specialized learning tools from Vocational Rehabilitation, which provided a computer, recording device and reading/writing program and paid for a portion of her college tuition.

Her grades and confidence improved.

“Now I’m actually really good at writing, but it took a lot of discipline, determination and dedication to get where I am,” Gray said.

The 40-year-old earned a bachelor’s degree in studio art with a photography emphasis in 2016 and a Master of Science in Education degree in student affairs in May 2018.

While working on her master’s, she served as assistant supervisor for success coaching in the Learning Commons at UNK’s Calvin T. Ryan Library and in June she was hired as a retention coach for the Early College Pathway program at Central Community College.

She uses her own struggles to connect with high schoolers and show them college is a possibility for anyone.

“I can help so many others with any kind of disability or fears because I’ve been through so much in life with my own experience,” she said.

Gray, who still works as a photographer shooting weddings, family portraits and senior photos, believes people with learning disabilities must be willing to advocate for themselves and not be afraid to seek help from others.

That mentality made all the difference in her life.

“I hate asking for help, but I know I wouldn’t be where I’m at if I never asked for help,” she said.

Tasha Schuh
Tasha Schuh

Monday, Nov. 12
2:30 p.m. – Locke and Key Society, “Disabilities in Distress: How accessible are the laws shaping our world?” Nebraskan Student Union Antelope Room (formerly the Cedar Room)
7 p.m. – UNK alumni and current student panel discussion, Copeland Hall Room 130

Tuesday, Nov. 13
11:30 a.m. – Luncheon with presentation on new accessible information management system, Nebraska Student Union Antelope Room
7 p.m. – College Diabetes Network, “Diabetes 101,” Copeland Hall Room 130

Wednesday, Nov. 14
2:30 p.m. – Assistive Technology Partnership presentation, Nebraskan Student Union Antelope Room
7 p.m. – UNK alumna Catrina Gray, “Who am I?” Copeland Hall Room 130

Thursday, Nov. 15
12:30 p.m. – UNK associate professor of social work Christina Sogar, “Disabilities in the Media,” Nebraskan Student Union Antelope Room
7 p.m. – Inspirational speaker Tasha Schuh, Nebraskan Student Union Ponderosa Room
After a theater accident left Schuh paralyzed from the chest down, she discovered invaluable lessons that resonate with audiences of all demographics. Since 2007, she has traveled across the country inspiring and challenging thousands of listeners to overcome and persevere, no matter what life throws at them.
Schuh was named Ms. Wheelchair USA (2012-13), and received the National Rehabilitation Champion Award in 2012, having been nominated by the Mayo Clinic. She has twice been recognized by the Wisconsin State Legislature for her remarkable inspiration to others. In 2014, she received the Young Distinguished Alumni Award from Winona State University and in 2016 was awarded the Falconer Distinguished Service Award from the Wisconsin Governor’s Committee for People with Disabilities. She is also a professional member of the National Speakers Association.