MOUNT LAUREL >> Cara McMullen suffers from a fairly common affliction. Her brain never stops racing. Her thoughts move faster than she can write. And when she does write, she sometimes uses the wrong words. Cara also shares a condition that affects 40 million adults in the United States: anxiety.
Although she’s experienced these symptoms her entire life, it wasn’t until 2005, during an American Sign Language class at Rowan College at Burlington County, when her teacher recognized that she had a disability and that there were accommodations she could benefit from.
“I started to record my classes and played them back over and over. I wasn’t timed when I took tests or quizzes. But my main coping mechanism was talking my thoughts out into a recorder,” McMullen shared. “Even though I don’t carry a recorder with me, I still talk out my thoughts. I can talk all day long. It’s the only way I know to slow my brain down since I have no idea how to relax.”
Cara began her college education in 1988, decades before this realization. After many setbacks and reconsiderations, she is preparing to graduate this spring. She began as a Theatre major, then switched to Deaf Studies in 2000 and eventually landed on a Liberal Arts degree due to a carpal tunnel syndrome diagnosis.
“In 2005, when I only had one more class for my ASL certificate, carpal tunnel set into both my hands, causing them to curl. Since I failed Algebra, I knew I couldn't go for the Deaf Study degree and again, gave up my dream of a college degree,” Cara recalled.
But she didn’t give up for good. She accepted a position at RCBC as a custodian six years later and began taking classes that piqued her interest, one of which was a Creative Writing course.
“I never thought I could finish my degree since it had been so long. After taking a Creative Writing course, I was pulled aside and reminded about the degree that I started. I was told that I was so close to finishing that I shouldn't stop,” McMullen said.
McMullen has since penned her first book “Sister Blue Jeans” and is in the beginning stages of several more, as she aims to become a published author. “Sister Blue Jeans” tells the story of Catherine Westwood, a girl whose life was turned upside down after her parents died in a plane crash. The story is told by Catherine, from her point-of-view, on how only you can put your life back together.
“I always dreamt of being the next Judy Blume and for years did research on problems we face growing up. I wanted to write a ‘troubled teens’ series and try to show that there are solutions and places to go for help if you were hurting,” McMullen said. “My research yielded three common themes: bullying, depression and suicide. I was bullied my whole life growing up; my nickname in school was ‘ghost woman’ because of my pale skin. This, on top of my learning disability, made my life hell growing up.”
On the plus side, everyone Cara interacts with now is very supportive of her burgeoning career.
“My biggest supporter at RCBC is Tina West (operations manager of the RCBC Foundation). When I met her and started to get to know her, she pushed me into believing I could do this too. She reminded me how close I was to finishing my degree and showered me with encouragement. The more she encouraged me, the more I tried because I didn’t want to let her down. Next thing I knew, I passed Algebra on my third attempt and started the last class needed to complete my degree,” McMullen recalled.
Cara plans to enroll in the 3+1 program to earn her bachelor’s degree. She continues to work as a custodian at the college, where she encourages students by sharing her comeback story.
“I see many students struggle and talk about quitting. I tell them my story and encourage them to keep trying. It took 32 years to put on this cap and gown and as long as I'm working at RCBC, I will continue to encourage our students to never give up on their dreams. With so much negativity being shoved down society’s throat, someone has to show people the light at the end of the tunnel,” McMullen shared.