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Local student finds success through perseverance

At 22, Autumn Hays was finally comfortable in her own skin and living life on her own terms, although she never expected that same level of acceptance from others.

“As long as I try with the highest ability I have, I’m going to be happy with myself,” she told herself.

Diagnosed in elementary school with dyslexia, then in high school with bipolar disorder, Hays spent much of her youth working around her learning disorder and mood swings. She moved from special education classes to honors classes and managed her bipolar condition without medication, yet Hays felt her unorthodox lifestyle excluded her from mainstream standards of success.

Hays was proven wrong when the Mesa College sophomore won the Jack Kent Cooke scholarship, an award of up to $30,000 a year for three years for high-achieving, lower-income students transferring from community colleges to a four-year institution.

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The $60,000 scholarship Hays received will cover tuition and living expenses at University of California, San Diego where she is a visual arts studio major.

The scholarship transformed the young artist’s life. Without the burden of school loans, she will now be able to focus on her studies and artwork. More importantly - and several times more valuable than $60,000 - Hays feels validated, understood, appreciated and accepted.

“It’s still astonishing to me that I worked through all the things that I worked through,” she said. “The two most dominant of those were the bipolar and dyslexia.”

The middle of five children, Hays was born and raised in San Diego. She was diagnosed with dyslexia in elementary school and placed in special education classes.

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“It was frustrating,” Hays said, “because I always felt like I could do the harder work.”

In sixth grade, she elected to attend mainstream classes. She surprised herself by achieving straight As. Her science and physical education teachers recommended that she be tested for the honors gifted program, and she scored beyond everyone’s expectations.

Hays’ academic achievements came to a grinding halt in high school with the diagnosis of bipolar disorder at age 13. Doctors experimented with a variety of medications, hoping to find a dosage that would benefit her. Side effects included sensitivity to light and twitches; her weight rocketed from 160 to 300 pounds.

One of the most frightening side affects was the practice of self-mutilation: cutting and burning herself. Numbed by the medication, these injuries allowed Hays to at least feel something.

Depressed and almost catatonic, Hays’ grades fell and she considered dropping out of school.

By 18, Hays decided to give up the meds. She learned about the condition, did research and spoke with others who suffered the maniacal highs and lows.

“I was going to teach myself to deal with my bipolar without medication,” she said. “My mom always said I was smart, so I taught myself tricks to get around it.”

Although Hays says she can still feel the bipolar chemical reaction in her body, she has learned to ignore it.

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Disappointed with what she calls her “mess up” in high school and influenced by lifelong doubts about her intelligence, Hays enrolled at Mesa College. She said that decision also made her feel like a failure, as if she wasn’t smart enough to attend a four-year university.

Once again, her achievements surprised everyone, including herself. She was recommended for honors courses, maintained a 3.8 grade point average, volunteered in multiple campus organizations, and juggled 18 class units while working 35 hours a week at UCSD Canyon Vista dining hall.

As she entered her sophomore year at Mesa College, Hays began seeking financial aid for her junior year. The director of the honors program told her about the Jack Kent Cooke scholarship. The application process was strenuous, requiring several essays and letters of recommendation. Ever aware of the handicaps caused by her dyslexia, Hays wrote, rewrote, edited, revised and proofed her essays, often asking others to triple-check her grammar.

With the application finalized and submitted, she checked it off of her to-do list and forgot about it.

Several months later, Hays begrudgingly attended the Mesa College scholarship banquet. She was to be presented with three modest scholarships, totaling $2,500. At ease presenting her artwork, that comfort did not carry over to other occasions where she found herself the center of attention. Hays went up three times to accept her awards, then made ready to slide out of the ceremony.

She knew something was up when her friends wouldn’t allow he to leave. She noticed a photographer eyeing her and figured he was taking in her brightly dyed hair and paint-spattered dress - until she overheard someone whisper, ". . . Jack Kent Cooke. . .” Hays knew she was the only Mesa College student in the running for the award.

“I almost fainted,” Hays said. “I got really dizzy, and I started crying.”

After her name was announced and she accepted a large plaque, Hays managed an impromptu acceptance speech. She went home in a daze and shared the news with her family.

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Today, Hays still works at the dining hall to earn spending money, and she’s eager to apply for the UCSD honors program. A multi-media artist who works with sculpture, sound, photography, smell, film, painting, drawing and performances, she is learning to embrace all that makes her unique.

“We have trouble believing in ourselves and trusting what we should be doing,” Hays said. “If you follow what you think you should be doing - even if you don’t think you have the ability to do it - you’ll be surprised every single time in how far you can go in achieving success.”

To explore the artwork of Autumn Hays, go to www.autumnhays.com.