fb-pixel Skip to main content

She’s been writing her own success story against all odds; now, she’ll collect her college diploma

“I want them to know that I’m not that different’'

Joanna Buoniconti, a journalism major who will graduate from UMass this week, is pictured at home in West Springfield.
Joanna Buoniconti, a journalism major who will graduate from UMass this week, is pictured at home in West Springfield.Matthew Cavanaugh/For The Boston Globe

WEST SPRINGFIELD — Under the colorfully festooned caps and gowns at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst on Friday, there will be soaring stories of scholarship and against-all-odds achievement.

The always brilliant valedictorian, and the kid who — defying the doubters — squeaked by on C’s.

The football hero, and the theater major who lit up the stage and wowed audiences.

The cool kids and the geeks. The musicians and the scientists.

And then there is the story of Joanna Buoniconti who will collect her degree at McGuirk Alumni Stadium during this year’s commencement and open a new chapter in a life that is a remarkable study in patience and determination.

Advertisement



And courage.

“She’s a brilliant, incisive thinker,’' said Suzanne Daly, an associate professor in the UMass English Department. “She’s intellectually gifted. That’s what floated her to the top. She’s also a lovely person. Kind. Thoughtful. Funny. Easy to like.’'

Or as journalism professor Karen K. List said in nominating Buoniconti for an award she will receive Friday: “She opens our minds to broader possibilities for making the world more diverse, equitable, and inclusive, and she’s a role model herself — a true leader in every sense of the word.”

As she sat in a motorized wheelchair in her home the other day during a sparkling springtime afternoon, Joanna Buoniconti — a gifted writer who dreams of a job in publishing — put it more simply.

“I want to have a career,’' she told me. “I want to move out one day. I want to get married and have a family. If you want it, you should be able to have it. Even with a disability.’'

For Anna Swiader, Joanna’s mother, Friday will be a Kleenex-worthy day in Amherst as images of her daughter’s young life wash over her.

She’ll see the little 7-pound, 6-ounce baby she gave birth to at Baystate Medical Center in June 1999. She’ll recall the impossibly cute baby and, then, the nagging worries when that baby failed to meet developmental mileposts.

Advertisement



“She turned on her side, but she was never able to turn on her stomach,’' Swiader told me here the other day. “She was talking very early. She was soaking it all in, probably because of her lack of mobility.’'

What followed was a young life of repeated hospitalizations. Then, a fateful diagnosis: spinal muscular atrophy. And more trips to the intensive care unit.

“When I was really young,’' Joanna told me, “I was sad at the beginning. The other kids didn’t interact with me as much because I was on the camera.’'

Yes, on the camera. Not in the classroom.

“High school was hard for me emotionally,’' she said. “I had a crush on a boy for years and he wouldn’t acknowledge me.’'

She focused on her studies.

She was a fixture on the honor roll. She considered colleges from Westfield to Boston, settling on UMass. Why?

“I just know this was the place for me because the first time I visited here, they were the only school that would accommodate me,’' she said.

And what an accommodation — and collaboration — that has been.

Joanna Buoniconti would become a Commonwealth Honors College student who will accept dual degrees in English, with specialties in creative writing and journalism. She worked as an intern at The Daily Hampshire Gazette and authored a monthly opinion column on disability advocacy.

Advertisement



“I started writing when I was 8 years old,’' she said. “And in many respects, my writing has become my voice and my way of communicating my thoughts with others. Because my voice is what it is.”

In her senior thesis she wrote about learning to know life-saving medical equipment “like the freckles on the back of my hands.

“One thing that has always amazed me,’' she wrote, “is how resilient the body can be to intense trauma. I have a roadmap of scars on my body to prove it.’'

She wrote about the refuge she found at her computer’s keyboard:

The soft sound of my fingers pressing the keyboard and words materializing on a backlit screen would become my sanctity. The only place where I could truly be free from all the restrictions that my daily life presented. The page would soon become the only place where I could be completely and wholly me.

In a way, her fingers on that keyboard unlocked doors and opened a college campus to a young woman who surely had earned her way to UMass.

“I never doubted that I could do it,’' she told me. “The beginning of college was extremely isolating. When I got more involved at the Collegian and at the Amherst Wire, I didn’t have any friends at first. But then I felt included.’'

The ceremonial punctuation point to college is accompanied by a swirl of emotions.

Advertisement



A time to reflect. A time to cheer. And to look ahead.

“It’ll be amazing,’' she said of what’s next. “But now, I have to figure out my next plan. A lot of people didn’t expect much from my because of my disability and I didn’t want my disability to define me. I wanted to prove people wrong.’'

Her mother grew emotional, hearing her daughter — so accomplished, so self-secure — sketch what lies beyond this week’s UMass commencement ceremony.

“Just extreme gratitude that she is succeeding in her life the way she is,’' Anna Swiader said. “Because that diagnosis that day was very frightening. And it was overwhelming. It was the unknown. Joanna has handled her diagnosis. She’s embraced her life. She had dignity and grace.

“And she refused to give up.’'

As we spoke the other afternoon in the fading afternoon light, white-and-gold balloons floated nearby in the kitchen.

They carried this message from her grandmother: “Go Change the World!’'

“It’s been my mission through my column for people to see the world through a disability,’' the graduate said. “When people look at me, they see my chair. But I want people to look at me and see humanity.

“And I want them to know that I’m not that different.’'

She wants to change the world. Or at least her corner of it.

No one who’s been reading the story that Joanna Buoniconti has been writing her entire life would doubt that she can achieve that.

Advertisement



Why? It’s what she’s done all of her remarkable young life.


Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can reached at thomas.farragher@globe.com.