This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: A misspelling was corrected.
SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — Like many students, Raena Brendtro is still figuring out the best route to get to her new classes this semester.
Except Raena has one extra element to consider.
“I use the motorized chair to get around campus,” Brendtro said.
Throughout elementary and middle school, Raena walked to all of her classes. Everything changed when she found out she had a rare neurodegenerative disease.
“I was diagnosed with Friedreich’s ataxia when I was 12. I got my first wheelchair when I was 13,” Brendtro said.
The disease accelerated rapidly at first, quickly making walking more difficult.
“It was a very, very hard adjustment,” Brendtro said.
But Raena has never let her change in mobility hold her back from her passion.
“Excited about doing everything I possibly could to seize life and academics and be really involved with all the extra curriculars that I possibly could,” Brendtro said.
It’s why attending college was a natural next step for Raena, and choosing Augustana University was an easy decision.
“I grew up in Sioux Falls, my grandpa was a professor here. My mom went to school here as well,” Brendtro said.
But that long history also comes with some challenges for students with mobility issues like Raena.
“Our oldest building was built in 1889, old main is the original building. When buildings were built back then, accessibility wasn’t a topic,” Rick Tupper, Associate VP for Safety and Logistics at Augustana University said.
Over the past few decades, Augustana University has made some major changes to help make the campus more accessible for everyone.
“Everything we do, whether it’s a renovation or a new build, accessibility is a prime discussion. We’re always looking at how our buildings are, how our campus is set up and what can we do different and what can we do better,” Tupper said.
But making all of the necessary changes to a growing 100-year-old university takes a lot of work and time.
“As you can imagine, there are miles of sidewalks that we have, so again it’s an ongoing process, it’s not something we can just do immediately. We take it one step at a time and as we see it we’ll fix it,” Tupper said.
“I just used a manual wheelchair the first couple of years here, the inclines and the slopes were so difficult and even the most gradual incline just really is exhausting and hard to get up,” Brendtro said.
But student leaders like Raena are helping to lend a voice to the changes still needed to make the campus even more accessible for students with mobility needs. Improvements that are happening right now across the Augustana campus.
“One thing that Augie really has going for it, even if it’s not super accessible, it does have some really good listeners and people who are really wanting to help,” Brendtro said.
“That’s the good part about being an advocate, you have to be out there,” Tupper said.
Raena served as a student senator last year, talking to school leaders and other students about potential accessibility improvements.
“I’ve really asked people to consider what it’s like for a disabled to live on campus and to be able to have access to everything that a non-wheelchair user would have access to,” Brendtro said,
Some of those changes have already become a reality in Augustana’s new residence hall.
“It was the first building we’ve built from the ground up so we could take accessibility into consideration from the very beginning, from the elevator to the doors, to how you’re getting in and out of the building,” Tupper said.
The new residence hall is fully accessible on every floor and in all common student areas, including the kitchen.
“I’m excited for my friends and I to have baking nights and come over and make some brownies,” Brendtro said.
Small changes that make a big difference in helping all students feel like they belong and can build their own home and future on Augustana’s campus.
“Everyone should be able to live independently, asking for help is really hard, having the option to live independently, having that option is an important step to an accessible future,” Brendtro said.
The kind of future Agusutana is striving for.