When alumna Cristina Cortez delivered a TEDx Talk in Everett, Washington, earlier this year, her message was simple: Don’t accept limitations in life.
And she ought to know. Cortez ’15, was diagnosed with quadriplegic cerebral palsy as a young girl and has used a wheelchair most of her life.
“Being a person who happens to have a disability, I have sidestepped difficulties and live life to the fullest,” Cortez said.
Cortez, who is originally from Long Island, graduated with a double major in English (with a concentration in creative writing) and history and a minor in Latin American and Caribbean studies. Wanting to dive deeper into writing, she enrolled in the MFA in Creative Writing and Poetics at the University of Washington Bothell.
Cortez’s TEDxEverett experience “was a complete accident,” she said. She attended what she thought was a poetry reading. At the end of the meeting, attendee Joanne Conger — who, unbeknownst to Cortez, was the organizer for TEDx Everett — approached Cortez and asked her to read her soon-to-be-published poem, “Disabled.” Immediately after reading her poem, Cortez was asked to be part of the 2017 line-up of speakers.
“I accepted the invitation, stunned by the opportunity,” Cortez said.
In her TEDx Talk, she emphasized that life is about freedom. Her freedom stems from her parents’ steadfast belief in the “pure potential” they saw in her eyes and her smile, despite her diagnosis and prognosis. “They made a future where there was none,” she said in her TEDx Talk.
“For me, it’s all about community,” she told her audience. “Community is nothing more, nor nothing less than all the people we connect to in our lives. Community doesn’t stop with a neighborhood, it doesn’t stop with social media … it goes beyond every single boundary that we can possibly think of, and for me, what happens with that is absolutely magical. When you do not see boundaries, there are none. For me, it’s not about being bound to a wheelchair, it’s not about being restricted, it’s about having a freedom that I otherwise wouldn’t have had. All life, all community, all connection is about taking that freedom and going forward with it.”
She challenged her audience. “If I could change, if I could make a difference, why can’t we all make a difference?” she asked. “Why can’t we all tear down walls and build bridges instead?”
TEDxEverett is part of the global TEDx program, which helps communities, organizations and individuals produce TED-style events at the local level. TED is a nonprofit organization devoted to spreading ideas, usually in the form of short, powerful talks.
Cortez looks back on TEDx Everett as “a day of lessons, stories, ideas, dreams, change, inspiration, motivation, transformation; [it was] surreal, stunning, life-changing, and much more….. I am still processing this extraordinary experience.”
Cortez, a Hofstra University Honors College alumna, graduated summa cum laude. She is a member of Phi Beta Kappa, the nation’s oldest liberal arts and sciences honor society; Alpha Delta Pi, the international honor society for students with disabilities; Phi Alpha Theta, the history honor society; and Sigma Tau Delta, the English honor society. As she finishes up her MFA, she is writing her memoir, which she plans to have published.
“I believe that we all can make our mark on the world, and live a life without limits,” Cortez said.
Photo credit: Phil Klein