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SMU Grad Profile

Erik Qvale, 24, of Minnetonka, Minn., will be graduating from Saint Mary's University with degrees in marketing and sports management. (Andrew Link/Winona Daily News)

When Erik Qvale walks across the stage in the Saint Mary’s University gymnasium and receives degrees in marketing and sports management, the accomplishment will be made all the sweeter by the knowledge that it’s an achievement earned through a combination of hard work and resourcefulness.

Since elementary school, Qvale, 24, of Minnetonka, Minn., has struggled with reading.

There’s no tidy name to categorize the challenges he has faced, Qvale said, but for years the disability made it difficult for him to keep up with peers in reading, phonetics and spelling.

When Qvale arrived in 2009 at Saint Mary’s, he knew that in order to get the most out of his college experience, he was going to have to find a way to stay on top of his studies.

One of his first stops on campus was to the office of Karen Hemker, director of disabilities services.

“Erik was very proactive in his approach, and he is an advocate for himself,” Hemker said. “He is very self-determined.”

The meeting changed his life.

Through Hemker, Qvale received special software and technology to aid him with schoolwork.

His textbooks were made available in electronic format that his computer could read to him. Another program allowed him to dictate his papers to his computer rather than type them.

“I have excellent audio retention,” Qvale said. “If you tell me something, I don’t really have to write it down. That part is great.”

It’s reading chapters upon chapters of complicated material from thick textbooks that is difficult.

The assistive technology has made all the difference. Without it, Qvale said, he would have had to spend all of his free time studying. Even then, coursework would have been difficult to master.

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Qvale will graduate with a 3.0 GPA and the satisfaction that he was able to achieve the marks independently while striking a healthy balance between work and play.

“That was good for me. In high school I needed assistance, and I did this all on my own,” he said.

Recognizing how important the services he received were to his success, Qvale has made it a priority to let others who may be in similar situations know that help is available.

In January, he started a semester-long internship in Hemker’s office, helping to market the support offered on campus by creating a website, talking to students at admissions fairs and mentoring students learning how to use some of the same programs as him. Qvale also has presented to SMU faculty members.

“I think he really puts students at ease,” Hemker said, “and they have someone they can relate to.”

Through all of the work, he has had one goal in mind: Give other students the information they need to have the same opportunities at success as him.

“A lot of kids don’t even know about the possibility of certain services,” Qvale said. “My focus was to take freshmen coming into Saint Mary’s who had kind of the same struggles as me and to show them what programs I’ve found that have helped me.”

Qvale is proud of his work at Saint Mary’s, but he isn’t content to stop there.

He plans to continue to help others learn how to use assistive technology, while looking for a full-time job in the Twin Cities area that will allow him to use his education in marketing and management.

Getting hired in the future at a golf course would be ideal, he said.

“I really look forward to getting my first job,” Qvale said. “That’s my big weight right now. Once that’s locked up, I think it will be a lot less stressful.”

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