On a rainy October morning in 2002, Chrissy Bongiorni, captain of the Georgetown High School cheerleading squad, got out of her car and stepped into the crosswalk leading to her school. The car speeding on Route 97 didn’t see her.
When Bongiorni awoke two weeks later, her body was badly damaged, and she had no recollection of the collision or the preceding five months. Not only did the injury to her brain erase her ability to perform basic functions like eating and walking, it prevented her from storing new information.
Nine years later, after hundreds of therapy sessions, sticky-note reminders, and hours of concerted effort, Chrissy Bongiorni walked up the stairs of the Gordon College graduation stage and received her diploma for a Bachelor of Arts degree in communication arts on May 21, 2011.
“My degree not only means that I have learned information; it means that I can accomplish what I set my mind to,” says Bongiorni. “I had to keep working at learning to improve physically. I also had to accept and grow from the changes in how my brain works.”
Bongiorni set her mind to a diploma from Gordon, but that meant spending an extra year at Georgetown High School and completing three years at Northern Essex Community College before transferring to Gordon in 2008.
“My short-term memory limitations interfere with learning, functioning, and having relationships,” she says. “You may have told me your name five minutes ago, but I will forget it. Everything is an extra effort for me.”
To compensate for her short-term memory challenges, Bongiorni carries a planner around with her and a supply of Post-It notes. She writes everything down and checks and double checks. “Chrissy is extremely organized and she manages her disability with a combination of diligence and true grit,” says Ann Seavey, director of academic support.
Her grit doesn’t just spur her on to academic improvement, but also to physical rehabilitation. “Because the right side of my brain was damaged, controlling the left side of my body is a challenge. It still takes a lot of concentration to close my left hand,” she says. To continue improving her range of motion, Bongiorni goes to the gym daily to stretch and do a routine of therapeutic exercises.
“I always feel refreshed after meeting with Chrissy because she’s funny, upbeat, and genuinely thankful to be in college,” says Seavey. “I’m inspired by her attitude and work ethic.”
Bongiorni credits her teachers, her friends, and most of all her family for helping her stay positive and reach her goals. “I was always taught by my parents to try my best and never give up. I guess that spirit has always been in me—now in even more ways than before the injury.”
Click here to read Chrissy’s story in the Newburyport News.