From High School Dropout to Harvard University Graduate Student

BY Sarah Clune  March 21, 2012 at 4:47 PM EDT

Editor’s Note: This profile is part of a PBS NewsHour series on the role of learning disabilities in America’s dropout crisis. Stay tuned for more in the coming days, both on-air and online.

Daniel Paris was at wit’s end. He had just entered sophomore year of high school, and he was still struggling to read. Paris knew it was more of an effort for him to read than his peers, but he had no idea why. He was frustrated and fell further and further behind.

“I just didn’t process the information as well,” Paris explained. “It was taking me so long to get to the end of a sentence that by the time I got to the end, I’d forgotten what the sentence was originally about.”

Like many kids struggling with learning disabilities, Paris was frustrated. But because no one had flagged him to be evaluated and he had not been diagnosed, Paris didn’t know why he wasn’t getting it. Before he finished sophomore year, he dropped out and was living on the streets of his hometown, Los Angeles.

He fell into a bad crowd and started abusing drugs and alcohol. “We did some pretty bad stuff. I was seeing things that still give me nightmares,” he said.

After one of his friends was clubbed in the back of the head and killed, Paris realized something had to change. “There was just something that snapped in me,” he said. “I needed to go back to school.”

Paris also credits his grandfather — who was a teacher — for the inspiration it took to complete his high school diploma at an alternative education program. It wasn’t until then that he was evaluated for learning disabilities. He was identified to have multiple, including dyslexia, as well as the diagnostically separate attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Attending college was never in his life plan, but he was a lifelong fan of the University of Southern California (inherited, he said, from his grandfather).

Paris started dating a girl who attended a local community college, and he enrolled in a psychology class to spend more time with her. She helped him with his homework assignments and read his textbooks aloud for him. Eventually, he ended up applying to USC as a sophomore transfer student, and to his surprise, he was accepted.

“I went home that day and I framed my acceptance letter — spent like all the money I had in my wallet, in my pocket, and bought a frame for that, because I figured that was a pinnacle, that was like, going to be the peak moment of my life,” he said.

After a rough start at USC, Paris sought out help for his disability and was set up with an academic support counselor, an emotional support counselor, medication and an ADHD support group. He also began using a screen reader with auditory software that transforms textbooks into audio files he can hear while he reads.

The other key to his success was the relationships he struck up with his psychology professors, including Karen Hennigan. She worked with him on his senior year thesis and encouraged him to join the honors program. After that, he ended up making the wall of scholars for the top students at the university and was awarded a $10,000 graduate scholarship.

“It’s just like one accolade after another,” Paris said. “As fast as everything snowballed down, my life snowballed up just for sticking in there.”

Paris was accepted into Harvard’s Graduate School of Education and began classes last fall. His goal is to give back to people who have struggled with similar learning disabilities and cognitive impairments.

“I want to be one of those people that’s going to go out there — whether it’s change something systematically or going on the ground level and one-life-at-a-time,” he said. “I just know that whatever I do, I want to give more people the opportunity to do what I’ve been able to do.”

Paris has already started down that road. Read his advice for students and parents currently struggling with learning disabilities here.

In a report on Wednesday’s NewsHour broadcast, health correspondent Betty Ann Bowser travels to Boston to learn more about the role of learning disabilities in the American dropout crisis. Click here for a primer on the set of disorders, and then read a profile of a businessman and poet who transformed his learning disability into a professional and artistic success story. Check the NewsHour’s Health Page throughout the week for more Web-exclusive content.

Photos courtesy of Daniel Paris. Video edited by Robert Hartman