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University of Colorado Denver | Anschutz Medical Campus

University of Colorado Denver, Newsroom
 

Dual Degree Grad

Next stop? The RTD Board


​by Vicki Hildner | University Communications

When Claudia Folska, PhD, walks across the stage and picks up her dual doctorate degree this month, don’t bother to ask, “What did you study to get this degree?”

Instead, ask her, “How are you going to change things with this degree?” and you will get treated to a full-Folska—a sometimes irreverent, sometimes indignant, always insightful view of the world through her eyes.
 
Folska’s eyes, by the way, demand some explaining. She is blind. 

Claudia Folska

She started losing her sight to a disease called fundus flavimaculatus, a form of macular degeneration, when she was five. But another warning—don’t try to peg her as a one-issue crusader for people with disabilities. She defies stereotypes, or as she puts it, “Don’t pigeonhole me.”

Undiagnosed

Folska’s dual degree is a combined PhD from the College of Architecture and Planning at CU Denver and the Institute of Cognitive Science at CU-Boulder. Her research focused on the ways blind people navigate in a built environment and the implications for the way blindness can change the brain throughout a person’s life.

This latest degree comes on top of her MBA from the University of Southern California (USC) Marshall School of Business. (With the newly acquired PhD, Folska plans to drop the MBA after her name. “Starts to look like alphabet soup,” she said.)
 
No one, perhaps least of all Folska, would have predicted her stellar academic career when she was in grade school. Her eye disease went undiagnosed, because she looked normal and didn’t have trouble with mobility. She failed sixth grade, because she could not see the work. She excelled at competitive speech, but the rest of her school life was “utter disaster.”
 
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) had not yet been passed, so Folska began creating her own accommodations. “That was my attitude,” she said. “If I can’t fit into the system, I will change the system so I can.” When she was 15, she took her GED and passed. “{With my GED} I could go to high school on my terms, and so I went just three days a week,” she said.
 
After she graduated from high school, she went to work as a secretary. “I was a secretary who couldn’t type, couldn’t file, but I could answer the phone,” she remembered. She knew that she did not want to do this kind of work for the rest of her life.
 

World of Possibilities

When Folska enrolled at Santa Monica City College in 1983, she made a discovery. The school had an office for students with disabilities that offered services like note-taking. Suddenly, she began to see a world of possibilities for her. Her academic success earned her a scholarship to USC, where she simply told professors she couldn’t take any test she would have to read, because she couldn’t see. She became a full-time disabilities advocate—for herself. “I should have gone to law school,” she joked.

Armed with her undergraduate degree in psychology, she began counseling other blind people, only to discover that the job “irritated” her. “So many of the people I counseled did not seem to want to be helped. I needed to do something different.”

Her next step was to return to USC for her MBA. With that degree under her belt in 1991, she left academia for a series of adventures. She rode a tandem bike across the United States. She moved to Pakistan, where she rode her bike across the highest pass between Pakistan and China. She returned to the United States to give birth to her daughter. “Just in case she wanted to be president, I wanted her born in the United States,” she said with a laugh. “And this was before Obama!”

In 1998, Folska returned to her home country, and within a couple years was looking for a new city she and her daughter could call home. She settled on Denver for one simple reason: “transit.” 

Transit

As a blind single mother, Folska knew that she and her daughter would go only as far as public transportation could take them. When Folska looked around the country, she found other cities that might have better transit systems than Denver, but none that had comparable climates and good transit. She moved to Denver.
 
With a small daughter to raise, Folska became increasingly frustrated with jobs that made it hard to invest time in her daughter’s upbringing. In 2003, she decided that if her daughter was in school, then maybe school would be a good place for her to be. She enrolled in the dual PhD program, initially thinking she would study how women are responsible for finding water in developing countries.
 
Gradually, her interest changed to cognitive mapping of blind people, to understand how the brain processes data when it doesn’t receive visual information. In her research, she learned that the standards for blind people using public transit were the gold standard for all people using public transit. “If the blind person can use [public transit] without problems,” she said, “then it will work for everybody.”
 
Folska tried to get a job with the Regional Transportation District (RTD), hoping to take the research she had done for her degree and translate it to the real world. “I couldn’t get anywhere with them,” she said. Undaunted, she came up with plan B and decided to run for the RTD board. “That would make me the boss,” she said.
  
She was elected. “Now I have some skin in the game,” she said.
 

20/20

​Folska’s goal on the RTD board is to see the FasTracks project speeded up. It’s scheduled to be finished in 2044. Folska would like to see it completed in 2020. “20/20. That’s perfect vision from me,” she said, laughing.

She is delighted to be in a position where she feels she can make a difference. “It feels really good to put all this effort into academic pursuit and then do something with it, instead of letting your knowledge collect dust on a shelf in an ivory tower,” Folska said. “I won’t lie. I want to see my work in action.”

When she walks across the stage and picks up her degree on Dec. 15, she will credit her own personal recipe for success: “It’s taken knowledge and skill, grit and determination, ingenuity and creativity.” And an occasional full-Folska.
 
Published:  December 3, 2012
Contact: stories@ucdenver.edu 

 

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