Her biggest worry coming to college was people would see her as different.
“I think we all have things and baggage and stuff,” said senior Paige Mandas of Marietta. “So, for me, I’ve really looked at it as an opportunity to be resilient and carry on in life, knowing your circumstances don’t have to define you.”
Mandas was born with cerebral palsy – a genetic condition that affects brain development before birth and disrupts coordination, making it difficult to move, swallow and speak. It was harder when Mandas was younger. Curious classmates stared at her leg braces. Growth spurts were painful. But, instead of making her weaker, cerebral palsy made Mandas more determined to succeed.
After corrective surgery in her 3rd-grade year, Mandas worked hard to lessen the outward signs of her disability. Then, in high school, she took psychology – the first course where she learned things that could be immediately witnessed outside class. That’s when Mandas decided she wanted to help others and ease the stress families go through when a child is born with disabilities.
Mandas is graduating soon with a degree in psychology, the first generation in her family to go to college. Everyone she’s met here has been welcoming and supportive – from faculty in the psychology department to her sorority sisters in Sigma Alpha Omega.
“I’ve really become OK with who I am,” Mandas said. “As cliché as it sounds – I’ve found myself as a person. I’ve learned to accept my differences, my disability – if I even call it that. I determine what success means in my life. Recognizing that I have a choice, and I have the ability to be independent has been really, really cool.”
Mandas identifies with young adult males, ages 18 to 24, who are part of a research study being conducted by psychology chair and professor Dr. Lee Gillis. For seven years, Gillis and his students have been collecting and analyzing data from the Enviros Shunda Creek adventure-therapy program in Canada. Youth with addictions go camping, kayaking, climbing and hiking there. One conclusion this year, Mandas said, showed opioid- and non-opioid users getting the same benefits from the 90-day program. Rugged outdoor activities build confidence in troubled youth – just as Mandas’ disability made her stronger.
“I think one of the biggest things I take away from the study is the ability to tolerate the gray, the ambiguity” she said. “Just knowing that there isn’t always a right or wrong answer – I think that can be applied to a lot of real-life situations. You’re not defeated, if one thing doesn’t turn out right.”
Mandas has become the “go-to leader” in Gillis’ lab – the person he said everyone seeks, if they have questions.
“If there’s another perpetually-positive person at Georgia College, I would like to meet them, as I do not think that's possible,” Gillis said. “She radiates goodness and light with her ever-present smile. I have observed her infect a group with good feelings and positive thinking, just by her presence and how she carries herself in the world.”
Mandas brought this cheeriness to her work as a community advisor as well, a position she held for two years. She’s currently a housing host in the residential halls and member of Psi Chi, the National Psychology Honors Society. Mandas recommends incoming students get involved and not be afraid to ask professors for help. The support and guidance she got from Gillis made a huge impact on her collegiate success. His words and actions display meaningful purpose – an example she said she’ll try to live by as she moves on to graduate school. Mandas has been accepted in the counseling program at the University of Georgia.
“I think what I will miss most is that sense of belonging,” Mandas said, “walking through the psychology department and everyone saying ‘Hi,’ because they know my name. I’ll miss being able to walk across front campus and feel that peace, knowing I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be.”