The hard part about Matthew Alexander Cline is finding something he didn’t do in college.
He double majored in history and liberal studies. He double minored in international studies and urban studies. He’s an Honors student and was president of two clubs – History and ICMA, the International City Management Association. He did original research, presenting his thesis abroad. He interned at the Marietta Museum of History and worked two campus jobs – as a community adviser for University Housing and peer counselor in the Career Center. Now, he’ll pursue a master’s in urban planning at Virginia Commonwealth University.
But, unless he tells you, an important distinguishing feature in his life would go unnoticed.
Cline has high-functioning autism and aphasia-apraxia, a neurological syndrome that affects language.
“I forced myself. I trained myself, because I wanted to do better,” he said. “I drove myself to overcome these obstacles. I wanted to work, to be active in different organizations.”
Cline was born prematurely and has an identical twin. Growing up in Marietta, he said his family experienced “strong stigma” from people who didn’t understand autism. A nurse once told his parents, “in a cruel, cold manner,” their sons would never go to college.
“If only I could show them all today how much I’ve accomplished,” said Cline. “There’s no reason people with disabilities should not be allowed to succeed. If you can really push yourself and choose what you want to do, there’s support, there is community. Don’t ever feel you’re second class.”
Cline said his mother was a “real pioneer.” With insight from his grandmother, a nurse, she home-schooled Cline and his siblings, making sure they had intensive speech therapy and a strong academic foundation.
Still, childhood was lonely. Cline had difficulty making friends.
“I was very sheltered. I was a parent-pleaser, a goofy child. I tried to fit in but couldn’t. People bullied and were indifferent,” Cline said. “Several times, I just broke down and questioned what I was doing wrong.”
He entered Georgia College determined to get the most out of his four years by utilizing services at the Student Disability Resource Center. This allowed him to get private housing accommodations, help editing papers, study guides and more time on tests.
He pushed himself to be active, socialize, make eye contact – and even take public transit in a foreign country.
It’s still easier for him to interact with adults, but Cline’s become comfortable with himself. The supportive environment at Georgia College had a lot to do this.
“After four years, I realized – that’s who I am,” Cline said. “And if someone’s not happy with it, tough luck. We’re not all Cinderellas and Prince Charmings.”
Today, Cline considers himself an ambassador for those who cannot speak for themselves.
“We’re not victims. We’re very capable. There’s nothing wrong with us,” he said. “We all have our own weaknesses and faults. It’s just learning to be accepting and supportive and look at the individual as a person.”
“I don’t want people to think we’re helpless. We’re very capable,” he added, “and if you just support us, we can do some amazing things.”
Achieve amazing things he did.
Cline entered college with a “great sense of self-motivation,” said Dr. Aran MacKinnon, professor and chair of history and geography.
“He showed remarkable initiative in mapping out a program of study that suited his interests,” MacKinnon said, “and I believe he gained a real sense of personal accomplishment from his studies in history.”
Cline was the university’s first student to study abroad in Austria, winning the Global Scholars Award and Annette Kade Scholarship. He spent eight months at the prestigious University of Graz International Summer School (GUESEGG) in Austria and Free University of Berlin in Germany.
While in Vienna, Cline presented original research on the chaos and change of 1898 that affected that city’s identity, eventually leading to the death of Emperor Franz Joseph and World War I.
His research helped Cline choose a career path in urban planning. He’d like to build cities into places people are happy and proud to call home.
Georgia College was such a place for him.
He has a long list of professors and staff members, who supported, befriended and influenced him over the years. There were times, he got frustrated and burned out – but Cline radiates friendliness and a grateful heart.
To other homeschoolers, those with disabilities and students in-general, he advises: Take the initiative. Put yourself out there and try your best. Don’t rush things.
“There is a sense of place at Georgia College,” Cline said. “This is a place you can call home. This is a place where you can be your absolute best, and you can succeed."