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Brenton Rhone

It’s a Wednesday morning, and the room in the General Classroom Building is dimly lit from the rainy sky outside.

Notebooks and papers are spread out on the table in front of Brenton Rhone, who’s bundled up in a thick coat and sweatpants. His face is down as he hides behind a book.

Then he looks up and smiles. “The first thing I do when I wake up is pray,” he says.

His head goes down once again, and he goes back to doing what every college student does: studying. But one thing sets Rhone apart from other students: Guillain-Barré Syndrome, which allows the body’s immune system to attack its nervous system.

The illness completely paralyzed Rhone, 40, on Halloween 2005. When he was on his way to work at UPMC, he felt sluggish. As soon as he arrived the nurses took one look at him and insisted he see a doctor.

“Slowly, I started losing feeling in my body,” he says. Now, though still in a wheelchair, Rhone has recovered control of most of his body. He still isn’t able to walk, but when his nerves “reconnect,” he will.

As faculty and students who see him on campus can attest, Rhone’s positive outlook on life helps him get through each day.

This day Rhone is studying for one of Grunstra’s tests. He flips a page of the hand-out the professor provided. “I never had him before,” Rhone says. “I don’t know how the test is going to be.”

And again, for a few more minutes, Rhone falls silent. The rim of his Penn State cap covers his eyes and glasses while he looks down at the material. His head slowly comes up and he looks at the clock. It’s 10:55 a.m.

“Gotta go now. About to be late for class,” Rhone says. He packs his things into a briefcase-style bag and heads off for Women and the Criminal Justice System, a course taught by Dr. Mari Pierce, assistant professor of administration of justice.

Rhone pushes the controls on his motorized wheelchair to get to the door. He opens it slightly. It takes him a moment, but it’s just enough to get his wheelchair through. He zooms off into the next room by using the same technique.

Rhone turns his wheelchair around to the front. A classmate close by gets up and pushes a small table toward him so he can use it as a desk.

Today the class is working in groups to answer a set of questions. This kind of group work didn’t happen the first time Rhone went to college. He was a student at Cheney University, but he didn’t really want to be there. “It was my fault. I was a typical freshman. I wasn’t going to classes.”

Rhone was put on academic probation.

This time it’s a different story. Rhone has a grade-point average of 3.2 and was nominated for the campus’s prestigious Eric A. and Josephine S. Walker Award, which recognizes a student’s achievements in and out of the classroom. He expects to graduate in spring 2014.

His health aide, Pam Murray of Beaver Falls, has no doubt he’ll make that happen.

“I’ve been with him since the beginning. To what he used to do when I first started, to what he is now... it’s truly amazing,” Murray said.

Murray accompanies Rhone to campus four days a week. Sometimes, she goes with him to class, and she drives him to campus when he’s in a regular wheelchair instead of a motorized one.

Murray is the reason Rhone considered coming to Penn State Beaver. She suggested it to him after he realized his first choice college, Robert Morris University, was too expensive.

Rhone called Marcess Williams, one of Beaver’s admissions counselors.

“Marcess started hustling to get me into Beaver before he even met me,” Rhone says.

Within a week he was a new Penn State student majoring in administration of justice.

That major keeps him busy. After Pierce’s class, he heads for the library to work with other students on a group presentation.

They write down ideas. Rhone makes the suggestion of doing a skit to introduce the presentation. Though all the group members turn him down, he says he’ll do whatever they need him to do.

The meeting ends and the members begin to leave. “I’ve been trying to get to one of your games,” Rhone says to the two basketball players in his group.

“You should come,” sophomore Marquis Samuels says as he leaves the table.

Rhone smiles as they leave, and they ask why he’s always so happy.

“I’m just so happy that I made it in,” he says. “Just being able to get to class …”

After graduation, Rhone hopes to find a master’s degree program online and achieve his No. 1 goal: becoming more independent. “I’m definitely looking forward,” Rhone says.