She's a survivor: Abington student fighting for others with disabilities

Abington Truman Scholarship nominee

Kira Charles, a Penn State Abington junior, wants to support others with disabilities by changing public policy.

Credit: Penn State

ABINGTON, Pa. — Penn State Abington student Kira Charles is a survivor, overcoming many obstacles, including coping with a disability and a near-fatal illness. 

Charles’ challenges started early. At age 14, symptoms of borderline personality disorder (BPD) started appearing.

“It’s no longer an obstacle since it is now well-managed, but rather a hidden strength. Seeing the world through the lens of BPD gave me a different perspective from those around me,” Charles said.

“It showed me the world of advocacy and social justice fights that never make it to mainstream media and are left virtually unheard by the members of society not in the disability world.” 

Several years ago, Charles was hospitalized with a severe infection that developed into life-threatening sepsis, and then she suffered a spinal injury at work. The stigma of BPD led to difficulties receiving appropriate treatment and workers’ compensation benefits.

“My history of a disability caused medical providers to second-guess my symptoms. They were chalked up to ‘imagined,’” the junior honors student said.

“My drive and passion for helping people is endless, and my determination to cause change is unparalleled.”

— Kira Charles, Penn State Abington junior

As a result, her career goals as a rehabilitation and human services major focus on supporting others with disabilities by changing public policy. 

“I have seen both sides of policies and stigmas that affect those with disabilities and find many of them troubling at best,” said Charles. “Seeing and experiencing them has given me a passion to be the voice for those who cannot speak up. My fight is for more than just me, it is for all of those who are stuck with the stigma of things they cannot control.”

“I know I want to help under-represented groups, like the homeless population and people with mental illnesses, but I'm not sure how I'm going to do it yet. I feel that my experiences and understanding of the populations can make a huge difference, and I'm really excited to be able to help them any way I can,” added Charles. 

“My drive and passion for helping people is endless, and my determination to cause change is unparalleled.” 

Charles’ commitment and plans for the future were recognized recently by the University, which selected her as a nominee for the highly competitive Harry S. Truman Scholarship. The scholarship provides a $30,000 award to high-achieving juniors from across the nation. In order to apply, students must plan to attend a professional or graduate school to prepare for a career in the government, nonprofit or advocacy sectors and commit to spending three of the first seven years after graduate or professional school working in public service.

Abington Truman Scholarship nominee

Kira Charles.

Credit: Penn State

Charles, who transferred to Abington, has been extremely active in the campus community, giving back where and when she can. She worked in Alumni Relations and Development as a student development specialist, served as an Orientation Leader, and is the current treasurer of the Student Philanthropy Council. 

But it was alternative spring break in South Dakota that had the most dramatic impact.

"I spent a week working with the Lakota Native American tribe to rehabilitate their community center. It brought amazing perspective to so many things in my life and is one of the driving forces in my choice to apply for the Truman Scholarship,” she said. 

Charles connected with Wendy Horwitz, assistant teaching professor of English, on the trip to South Dakota.

“Since meeting her, I've been inspired and pushed to do more than I ever thought I could. She encouraged me to apply for the Truman Scholarship and submit poems for publication,” Charles said.

She also cites a staff member in Alumni Relations and Development as inspiration.  

“Susannah Hunter hired me to work in the Alumni Relations office and taught me why philanthropy is so important. She introduced me to the Student Philanthropy Council where I met many students like myself and where I learned that helping people was my passion,” she said.

Charles is a World Campus student this semester and living in Knoxville, Tennessee.

“I just recently moved to learn more about the local government and graduate school options here. Tennessee is in a region with high poverty and high rates of people with a disability,” she said. “The surrounding states, mostly Kentucky, are working to defund disability programs, so both of those populations are increasing and my field is opening up.”  

About Penn State Abington

Penn State Abington provides an affordable, accessible, and high-impact education resulting in the success of a diverse student body. It is committed to student success through innovative approaches to 21st century public higher education within a world-class research university. With nearly 4,000 students, Penn State Abington is a residential campus that offers baccalaureate degrees in 19 majors, undergraduate research, the Schreyer honors program, NCAA Division III athletics, and more.