December 3, 2021
By Holly Hexter
Jackie Fortmann knows all too well that your life can change in a split second.
In 2007, she enrolled at Northeast Iowa Community College, embarking on a program to obtain an associate degree. Two days later came the weekend, and an ATV accident damaged her spinal cord and left her paralyzed.
Fortmann isn’t dwelling on that now. The TRIO SSS alumna is the possessor of three degrees and is the deputy director of Ability 1st, The Center for Independent Living, in Tallahassee, Florida, where she oversees programming and grant-writing for the social service agency.
“I believe in making the best of a situation... I believe I’m on the right path now, and I’m very proud of myself for what I’ve accomplished.” Despite more than 20 surgeries since her accident — six in the last year alone —, she is settled into a house of her own that she shares with two “crazy” terriers and a pit bull.
After her recovery, Fortmann credits the NICC TRIO Student Support Services program for getting her where she is today. “They were amazing,” she said of SSS Director Cindy Virta and Jodi Kremer. SSS promotes academic success for low-income and first-generation college students and students with disabilities. The program helped Fortmann determine which courses would transfer and get the necessary credits to enroll in Florida State University, where she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in social work.
Why did she choose social work? In the aftermath of her accident, an interaction with a social worker convinced Fortmann that “I wanted NOT to be that person but wanted to be a light for people” in similar circumstances.
In 2011, the NICC SSS staff encouraged Jackie to apply to COE’s study abroad program in Salamanca, Spain. She was the first paraplegic to participate. “I was the first person in a chair to go, and it was life-changing,” Fortmann said of the experience. “I want to go back.”
“I learned so much. Spain is not the most accessible place,” she admits. “But it was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. I was exposed to another culture, a whole other way of life. I have my certificate from the University of Salamanca framed on my wall.”
One cultural difference Fortmann observed was that in Spain, “people in wheelchairs or who have mobility issues, their family takes care of them.” Fortmann remembers dorm rooms and excursion sites that were inaccessible. Rooms in the residence hall had to be retrofitted for her. “But I wouldn’t change anything,” she says. “It was a learning experience, and that’s the whole point of going to another country.”
Fortmann thinks accessibility has improved in the ten years since she traveled abroad. So would she encourage students with disabilities to seek out study abroad opportunities?
“A million percent,” she says, adding that sharing experiences such as hers is vital. “If they know people who have done it, they’ll be more likely to go.”