Commencement 2019: With courage and determination, communications major overcomes brain injury

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Julia DeGiovanni
Julia DeGiovanni. Photo by Nora Lewis

KINGSTON, R.I. – May 1, 2019 – Great thinkers have argued whether it’s the brain or the heart that rules the body. Julia DeGiovanni knows the answer. It’s the heart.

When DeGiovanni suffered a near-fatal brain aneurysm during her first year at the University of Rhode Island in 2011, it was her courage, her determination – her heart – that brought her back.

The Hope Valley, Rhode Island, resident will walk across the stage at commencement May 19 to collect her bachelor of arts degree in communication studies, with a minor in sustainability. DeGiovanni, 26, will be capping a shining career – dean’s list honors, successful internships, teachers and classmates who remember her fondly – that once seemed very improbable.

“Graduation means a lot for any person,” says DeGiovanni. “It would have meant a lot to me before my accident, but the fact I came back to school, it means so much more. I can’t even put into words how much it means to me.”

DeGiovanni remembers the morning of her injury, Dec. 9, 2011, amid final exams just before Christmas break. Rooming with two friends from high school, she awoke in her residence hall with a headache and feeling nauseous. “I got off the top bunk and said, ‘I don’t feel good,’ and collapsed to the floor,” she recalls. “The next thing I knew it’s a month and a half later.”

Doctors found that she had a vascular malformation in her brain, or AVM, and had suffered a ruptured brain aneurysm, which is fatal in about 40 percent of cases. During the next five months, she was shuttled between hospitals in Providence and Boston, as doctors operated three times to repair damage to her brain, and performed two other procedures to reattach her skull.

After months in the hospital, she returned home to five days of physical therapy a week at a rehabilitation center in Warwick. She required nine hours of surgery to remove a bone growth in her hip that greatly constricted her movement, and has gone through physical therapy to improve her mobility since the aneurysm. She also had to re-learn to read and went through three years of speech therapy at the URI Speech and Hearing Centers.

DeGiovanni still walks with a cane, but her mobility has improved greatly – and she hopes to walk through commencement without it. She speaks clearly and, while she still reads slower than she’d like, it hasn’t slowed her at URI. And she’s gained a perspective on her injury and its aftermath.

“Mentally you have to be OK with everything,” she says. “You have to understand that this is your life, this is what happened to you. You take every day with the expectation that you’re not going to succeed at everything you do, but with the little victories you do win, you’ve got to celebrate them.”

Since returning to URI in the spring of 2015 – the same semester in which she would have originally graduated – she’s had a lot to celebrate. As a test run, DeGiovanni took one class, the fundamentals of journalism with Barbara Meagher, a professor of journalism who has since retired. Despite some early jitters, DeGiovanni finished the class with a 95 average.

“I was able to do it and I was so proud of myself,” she says. “That was something I thought I would never be able to do, but deep down I knew I was going to get better.”

DeGiovanni continued to build on her success, increasing the number of courses each semester, along with taking classes over summer and winter breaks. This semester, she’s taken her heaviest workload – 18 credits – and hasn’t received a grade below a 95.

“I’ve haven’t taken this many courses since my accident,” she says. “So, I’m a little overwhelmed, but I’m really proud of myself.”

DeGiovanni is also very thankful for those who’ve helped her get to this point.

There’s her former high school adviser, Tammy Lyons, now a reading specialist at Charlestown Elementary School, who helped her to read again. There are her parents, Michael Jr. and Kelly DeGiovanni, and her younger sister, Alyzza. And there are 10 “amazing” friends who she started college with and who, she says, have always treated her the same. “They’re my biggest cheerleaders, my biggest advocates,” she says.

Meagher, she says, welcomed her warmly to her first class back at URI. And, Norbert Mundorf, chair and professor of communication studies, and his wife, Joanne Mundorf, senior lecturer in communication studies, have served as de facto academic advisers.

“I love the ability URI has offered me,” DeGiovanni says. “My thing was I needed extra time and I’ve been able to reach out to professors and classmates who I’ve worked with to get a better understanding about assignments or to get more clarification. Communications is my major and it’s a big part of what makes me me.”

DeGiovanni credits the Mundorfs with helping her center on communications as a major and sustainability as a minor.

“Julia really created this wonderfully positive mood in class, and as I’ve come to know her I’ve noticed that she’s that kind of person. She’s open to everything, she’s excited about everything,” says Joanne Mundorf. “Academically, I think the secret of her success is her enthusiasm and her openness. But she’s also super organized. She’s sort of a renaissance person. She has this vivacious personality, but she’s very methodical and organized.”

DeGiovanni has become increasingly interested in environmental issues, and her minor in sustainability has included numerous internships on projects such as URI Earth Day and a local farmers market.

“It’s just amazing the way she developed an interest in sustainability and pursued it. She’s very persistent,” says Norbert Mundorf, coordinator of the sustainability minor. “In my classes, I combine a theoretical understanding with a practical dimension. She’s been very good bringing those two things together.”

DeGiovanni is also interning at the Brain Injury Association of Rhode Island. As a communications intern, she’s advocated for awareness at the Statehouse during Brain Injury Awareness Month in March, and served as a greeter during the Statewide Brain Injury Education Conference at the Crown Plaza in Warwick.

“She has a very valuable perspective on brain injury,” says David Lima, communications manager for the association. “She is able to relate to others her experience as a brain injury survivor. It’s important for many survivors to know that they are not alone. Her story of personal growth from being incapacitated by her injury to graduation is both moving and important for many who have a brain injury.”

Eventually, DeGiovanni would like to work in journalism, perhaps covering sustainability issues as a TV reporter. “Face to face interactions are very powerful,” she says. “Putting a face to an issue makes people take it more seriously.”

But for now, she is focused on graduation. She crammed in 18 credits this semester, she says, to make sure she graduated in the decade she started.

“I’m ready for the next chapter of my life,” she says. “URI is a great school. It’s been wonderful to me. I will cherish the memories before my accident when I was here with my friends, and I’ll cherish my memories after my accident when I was doing it by myself. But I’m ready for the next phase in life. I’m ready to be considered an alumna.”