Class of 2015


Jefferson Bickerstaff defies significant odds to graduate with honors KENNESAW, Ga. (May 13, 2015…

Georgia (May 13, 2015)

Jefferson Bickerstaff defies significant odds to graduate with honors

KENNESAW, Ga. (May 13, 2015) — This is just the beginning.

When you’ve taken the journey Jefferson Bickerstaff and his parents have, his walking across the stage to receive his B.S. in Information Security and Assurance during commencement this week will be not a culmination of a goal that began in 2001. It will represent another significant milestone in the 31-year-old’s life, one that few — if any — outside his home ever thought would happen.

Bickerstaff’s challenges began moments before birth. An anesthesiologist administered his mother, Phyllis, a drug in an epidural to lower her blood pressure. He didn’t immediately note that on Bickerstaff’s chart. When he walked away to attend to something else, a nurse, reading the chart and seeing his mom was due to take that drug, gave her a second dose.

Immediately, both his mother’s blood pressure and Bickerstaff’s heart rate plummeted. He was born through emergency vertical C-section with anoxia (loss of oxygen due to the double dose). So what had been an otherwise normal pregnancy, in which Bickerstaff was born 7 pounds, 2 ounces and two weeks overdue, was nearly fatal for both.

The damage was done. The loss of oxygen at birth injured the part of Bickerstaff’s brain that affects his large and small motor skills. The term most often used for this is cerebral palsy, but Bickerstaff rejects it as an “ashcan term” and dislikes its label because of its imprecision in use.

“When people hear brain injury, they immediately think someone’s intellect is affected and that is not always the case,” Bickerstaff said, who communicates through his laptop and a 4-by-6-inch facilitation board — a card with letters and commands that he points to. “I wish more people understood more about disabilities and their causes and how a person is affected. Maybe in time.”

Since he was 18 months old, Bickerstaff’s parents have engaged in an intensive physical and intellectual program from The Institutes for the Achievement of Human Potential in Philadelphia.

“I am so grateful that my mother sought out the best future possible for me from such a young age and stood by me as I’ve been reaching for my personal potential,” Bickerstaff said. “My parents really didn’t want to send me away to an institute to waste away, like most individuals with this traumatic brain injury.

“Recently when my normal assistant was out of town, for a few days I was temporarily assisted by a man who lived and worked at a group home for adults with disabilities. When we drove him home, it broke my heart when we dropped him off and I saw the condition of most of the individuals there. Most of them spent their day in bed and listlessly watching television, rather than have anyone encouraging them to reach their potential.”

Through the Institutes, Bickerstaff was home schooled until he was 17 years old, at which time he passed his GED. He earned an associate science degree (with honors Phi Theta Kappa) from Georgia Perimeter College before transferring to Kennesaw State. It was KSU’s attention to the needs of those with disabilities that drew him here.

On most days, it is a major undertaking to take Bickerstaff anywhere and requires much advanced planning. His family thought it would be no different when Bickerstaff decided to attend the graduation of one of the people who had been assisting him, Michael Duchon.

“We had the maps of where we needed to go and how to get there,” Phyllis said. “We thought it would be like anywhere else, but it was the smoothest, thought-out experience we have ever had. From where we parked to getting him in the building was outstanding. It was obvious to us the people here took what we needed into consideration. He knew this is where he wanted to go.”

He said his time at Kennesaw State was made much smoother because of the help he received from Ellen Cross, senior lecturer of management and entrepreneurship. For the information security and assurance coursework, he said he enjoyed working with Andy Green. But he especially wanted to single out Herb Mattord – also in ISA – for being instrumental in his becoming a solid student. He graduates, summa cum laude, with a 3.9 GPA.

“(Mattord) has supported me through my KSU/ISA journey,” Bickerstaff said. “He took lot of the stress out of my classwork through his words of wisdom and understanding.”

To assist him with his studies, Bickerstaff has scribes (assistants who transcribe his classwork). And on Commencement Day, he will make it across the stage with the help of an assistant supporting him. That’s key to Bickerstaff. After doing physical therapy 10 hours a day, seven days a week for 19 years to train his body, he refuses the use of a wheelchair. He uses a travel chair for long distances and in places like airports.

“Jefferson doesn’t try to call attention to himself or ask for favors because of his disability,” Phyllis Bickerstaff said. “He is just wants to be one of the crowd and is so determined to accomplish the task at hand or help someone else out because that’s just Jefferson. I don’t think Jefferson knows how really special he is. He makes me proud every day and has made me a better person just by being my son.

“Jefferson has worked so hard to get where he is today, but he just wants to be a regular guy and do the things guys do. Work hard, play hard, have friends, have a girlfriend, and be successful.”

He’s determined to do just that once he navigates the process of someone with his disability to take the GRE (it took him four days to take the SAT) and to pursue a master’s degree. His objective is to work at Apple and develop products better accommodate people with physical challenges.


— by Tim Turner

— Photo by Anthony Stalcup


A leader in innovative teaching and learning, Kennesaw State University offers undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees to its nearly 43,000 students. With 11 colleges on two metro Atlanta campuses, Kennesaw State is a member of the University System of Georgia. The university’s vibrant campus culture, diverse population, strong global ties and entrepreneurial spirit draw students from throughout the country and the world. Kennesaw State is a Carnegie-designated doctoral research institution (R2), placing it among an elite group of only 6 percent of U.S. colleges and universities with an R1 or R2 status. For more information, visit