Nyla Smith Beats Chemotherapy and Becomes the Youngest Graduate at St. John’s University

This Amazing Young Woman is breaking barriers for the Physically Disabled

Sydnee Brashears

Contributing Writer at RYSE
Contributing writer for RYSE with a passion for science, art, and storytelling in any form. Proudly Autistic, not so proudly still passes for the 12 and under discount.

Disability Rights in the classroom are often either underfunded or mishandled by professors and teachers who don’t understand the issues disabled students face. Whether dealing with different neurotypes like Autism, mental disabilities like Depression or Anxiety, or physical disabilities such as Crohn’s Disease or Cerebral Palsy, disabled students often get shoved under the rug. Especially when dealing with invisible illnesses, faculty aren’t the only problem, however. Bullying from peers is a huge issue when disabilities come into play. Unfortunately, this toxic educational atmosphere makes disabled graduates rare. One brilliant woman, however, managed to break past this barrier. Her name is Nyla Smith, and as of May 2016, she’s the youngest person at the St. John’s University to graduate with a Bachelor of Science, while undergoing chemotherapy for Crohn’s.
13221754_10154221489807265_1126436715427852425_n“I have always been fascinated with biology and anatomy,” Nyla says, “but science didn’t come naturally to me. My teachers told me to major in something else.”. Bullied by her peers and discouraged by her teacher’s lack of belief, she majored in art instead. Nyla studied to become an actress between 6th grade and her sophomore year at the Booker T. Washington High School for Visual and Performing Arts in Downtown Dallas. Something was missing from her education, however. She just wasn’t enthusiastic about it. “I like being an artist, I like being in front of the camera, but it wasn’t my passion,” Nyla says. “I was doing the artsy thing, but it wasn’t my passion.”


Something changed, however, when she fell ill. She went to the doctors to find out what was wrong and began the arduous process of getting a diagnosis. “The doctors were so dismissive of me.” Nyla remembers when she was trying to be diagnosed with Crohn’s, “They don’t care about being doctors. They have such a high volume of patients that they forget that their patients are people, too. I understand what it’s like to be a patient.” The attitudes of the physicians she attended inspired her to continue following her passion, and graduate to become a physician’s assistant. She knew it wouldn’t be easy, though. Especially with the lingering medical issues she would have to endure for life.


She started with an early graduate program at St. John’s University, hoping to earn her Bachelor’s of Science. The program proved rigorous but made more difficult with the multiple diagnoses Nyla Smith had received. Depression, Anxiety, Crohns, IBD, and a panic disorder developed both in school and college. “It was the most hellish period of my life. A high volume of work, you can’t be late, you can’t miss. I found myself struggling to keep up with the other science students. It is tough to be a full-time student with a full-time disease.” Nyla says about her time. But, she had a passion for fulfilling. She wouldn’t stop. She fell in love with education. “I love learning; I love going to class.”


She is currently applying to Rutger’s and UNT for their physicians’ programs.


The school’s lack of accommodations for her disabilities did not help the situations. As stated before, she was undergoing chemotherapy for her Crohn’s, starting at 15 Remicade infusions, to be exact. The medication helped treat Crohn’s and other immunodeficiencies, but had nasty side effects. She lost her hair, developed psoriasis, and her peers bullied her endlessly. In college, the counseling service was less than helpful. One day, she had a panic attack in the classroom. She left to call the counseling service, needing to talk to someone but was less than impressed with the response. “She told me if I wasn’t about to kill myself I had to go back to class. It was super hurtful. I feel like I’m about to have a heart attack.” Nyla said about the experience. She believes the college ignores its large disabled population.

This experience motivated her to make her foundation, known as the Hustle Hard Campaign.12923356_10154095239082265_4831566965186828197_n

Hustle Hard Campaign is a foundation funded by Nyla Smith to provide resources and support for disabled students, in particular for those with invisible illnesses. Isolated by her peers in college, Nyla knew they didn’t understand how she could be ill all the time. She couldn’t hang out or do fun things as often as they could. She knew other disabled students felt just as isolated, “and that isolation leads to frustration.” Nyla said. “Isolation and frustration lead to dropping out.” With her program, Nyla set her ultimate goal to retain disabled students and help them graduate.

Hustle Hard provides tutorials, videos, and articles on how to cope with disabilities while in college, and how to be successful. It also offers scholarship to disabled students, funded by Nyla herself. She funds that campaign with the money she makes as a motivational speaker. “Funding would be great,” Nyla said when asked about what the organization needed. “All the money for the scholarship is out of pocket. All money from speaking goes directly into the scholarship.” What the campaign needs most of all, however, is manpower.

Disabled students need a community, a support group. This campaign combats the isolation caused by a lack of resources and understanding. To spread and help on college campuses. However, the campaign needs manpower. Manpower in the form of students. Nyla Smith wants to work with students and schools to integrate Hustle Hard clubs into schools. To do that, students need to approach their Student Life and present the organization. Once set up, it will provide a place of companionship and comradery for disabled students, particularly those with invisible illnesses. Different schools require different set-ups, so check your school for their club requirements. (I’m currently checking out mine!)

The longer she continues the campaign, the more she realizes the need it fulfills.

“After I graduated, a picture of me went viral on the internet. After that, I got contacts from all over the world. Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, Britain. Oh, I’ve gone through the same things. It’s so awful. Going through everyday life is awful.” She says. She went on to tell me about a disabled student who e-mailed her after being on the verge of committing suicide due to the illness and the difficulties of living with it. “It breaks my freaking heart that it got that bad. She needed some type of consolation. She needs a support group of students who need to be like her, know what she’s going through. I know how bad it gets, and I know how tempting it seems. It reassured me what I’m doing is important.”

She has an ultimate goal for her project.

“My ultimate goal? I want to improve retention rates of [disabled students in] school. I have gotten so much mail from peo14102742_1230495353649705_5709315504692633345_nple. I want my club to be a home on campus for them, because I didn’t have one. A place to make friends, build relationships. More students will continue in school. Less students drop out and have to settle.”

She says, it would be “super awesome” to go discuss disability rights in congress, but she sees it more as a long-term goal.

Nyla is currently partnering with other organizations such as Heart and Hustle Clothing Co, and Xeon Incorporated, to fund her scholarships. An example of their work is on the right. Her gofundme is here if you would like to donate, as well.

Nyla Smith works hard not only for her own education, but to make it accessible to other disabled students, as well. Using her experiences as her motivation, she gives people a place to connect and share their experiences. In the long term, she hopes to help disabled students graduate and to help disabled individuals as their medical provider. An inspiration to able-bodied and disabled individuals alike, Nyla Smith, is a warrior who I hope conquers the school systems not just in America, but around the world.


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1 Comment
  1. […] my eyes the most to this was a woman I interviewed that year while doing a news internship named Nyla Smith.  Creator of the Hustle Hard Campaign, Nyla is most known for becoming the youngest graduate […]

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