Brian Schnelle is quiet as he thinks about all the emotions running through his head as his graduation from Trevecca draws closer.
“I’m nervous,” he said softly.
“That’s fair,” his dad, Jeff, answered. “I was nervous, too.”
Walking across the stage to receive a diploma is an achievement for every graduate. But for Brian, it’s even more so. Brian, who is on the autism spectrum, began working toward his bachelor’s degree in sport management in 2007.
For the past 12 years, he’s diligently pressed toward his goal, taking a few classes a semester, often accompanied to class by one of his parents.
On May 4, Brian and his parents, Jeff and Jane, will celebrate Brian’s achievement at Trevecca’s Commencement Convocation.
For Brian’s father, the moment is a little bittersweet.
“I have mixed emotions,” Jeff admitted. “I’m delighted for Brian. He has really worked hard to do this. But I’ve also enjoyed my time at Trevecca. I found [the University] really refreshing. I’ve become friends with several professors. I’ve just really enjoyed those relationships, and the people at the school have been wonderful to Brian.”
As high school drew to a close, Brian knew he wanted to continue his education. His parents supported him but wanted to find a school and a campus community where Brian would get a quality education, but also feel encouraged, accepted and safe.
They found it at Trevecca.
“Trevecca is different,” Brian said. “I felt comfortable, safe. It was the right fit for me. I knew I should go there and get my degree.”
Jeff agrees with his son.
“We had looked into local community colleges, but we visited Trevecca, and it just felt like a good fit,” Jeff recalled. “Amy Murphy in the Center for Leadership, Service and Calling (now part of the Center for Student Development) was our point of contact back then, and we knew this was going to be a challenge for Brian and thought it would be a challenge for the people around him, too, until he adjusted to it.
“Amy told us that Trevecca was a Christian school and if they weren’t willing to try, then they shouldn’t call themselves a Christian school,” Jeff continued. “She also made it clear to Brian that he wasn’t going to come and coast through it. He had to do everything every other student did.”
As the countdown to Brian’s college graduation slips from weeks and days to hours, Jeff has found himself growing a bit nostalgic. He can remember so many moments from Brian’s college career with clarity—sometimes better than Brian does. “Wonderful memories of a wonderful experience,” he calls them.
Like the time Brian, a big fan of Christmas, put on a Santa beard in class and shouted out a hearty “Ho, Ho, Ho.” Jeff says he didn’t see the humor in it at the time, but it makes him chuckle now.
The 8 a.m. classes and the race to get there in Nashville traffic. The unwavering support and encouragement of faculty and staff members, especially those in student development.
And those early days when Brian came to orientation, a weekend filled with excitement and a little anxiety.
“At orientation, there were activities where students went off by themselves,” Jeff recalled. “Jeff Swink and Amy made sure Brian got where he needed to be and that there were people to chaperone him. For people on the autism spectrum, events like orientation can be overwhelming, but from the beginning, Trevecca was prepared for Brian. We were touched by the kindness.”
“We did it all backward,” Jeff says, when he talks about Brian’s college career. “It was such a different experience from high school. We just looked at the schedule, and he picked courses that he might enjoy at first.”
After Brian declared his major, class times weren’t always as flexible, but Jeff and Brian made it work, driving from the Old Hickory area to Trevecca most days. Brian found a home in the sport management department, with professors like former director Dr. Joe Cole and current director Dr. Brenda Patterson, who is one of Brian’s biggest advocates, Jeff says.
It has been exciting to witness Brian’s fulfillment of one day graduating with a bachelor’s degree in sport management—with academic honors,” Patterson said. “Each semester over the past 12 years, Brian has registered for five to six hours per semester. As this chapter in Brian’s life journey comes to a close, I can honestly say he has taught me the importance of perseverance and of staying focused on our abilities and not our limitations.”
Brian’s perseverance inspired Patterson and faculty members in the Department of Exercise and Sport Science to establish an annual award in his honor. Brian was the first recipient, honored in a chapel service last week at Trevecca.
Some classes, like Brian’s religion courses, stretched him and opened Brian’s eyes to understanding Scripture in a new way, his dad says.
“Spiritual things were always a struggle for you, weren’t they Brian?” Jeff asked his son, mentioning courses Brian had taken with Prof. Brent McMillian.
“He really enjoyed Prof. McMillian’s classes,” Jeff continued. “Brian said he made everything easy to understand. I wasn’t sure how he would feel about learning about the Bible, but he really enjoyed it. I’m excited for him because he learned so much.”
“I get it now,” Brian added. “I always wanted to know more about the Bible.”
For Brian, leaving Trevecca before he finished his degree was never an option, though it wasn’t always easy.
“I kept going because I wanted to get my degree,” he said. “My degree was important, so I kept chugging along.”
Brian and his family are already planning Brian’s next steps after graduation. Once again, they’re looking for the right fit, which means considering Brian’s interests, gifts and talents.
“He likes Pokemon,” Jeff said, “and he plays in an adult league every Sunday. He likes animals and volunteers some at the Metro Animal Control Center. He’s helped with special needs baseball and basketball leagues for several years as a volunteer.”
Empower Me Center, an organization in Wilson County, has also been a huge part of Brian’s life. He’s attended a camp there for 20 years.
The family is weighing various options and looking for opportunities that will be “faithful and rewarding” to Brian. But for the time being, the Schnelles are simply looking forward to tomorrow’s Commencement Convocation—when Brian will receive the diploma he worked 12 long years to earn.
Brian may be a little nervous, but that’s not the only emotion he’s feeling.
“I’m nervous,” he said, “but excited and proud.”