'I absolutely love it. It's my calling'

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Years after a paralyzing skiing accident, Monica Quimby is a college teacher and pageant queen

SOUTH PORTLAND — From her wheelchair, Monica Quimby wrote the word “chytrids” on the board. She lectured her Southern Maine Community College biology class about the primitive parasite.

“It looks like and seems like a bacteria.” But it’s a fungus, she said. “The reason it’s a fungi is it replicates like a fungi. It has similar cell walls.”

Students, who looked about the same age as Quimby, diligently took notes as she lectured. 

The class continued going over other kinds of fungus, how they feed and reproduce.

Quimby, who became paralyzed five years ago in a Sunday River ski accident, is an adjunct, or part-time, biology professor at SMCC. She’s 24.

“This is my third semester,” she said after class, flashing a big smile.

“I absolutely love it. It’s my calling, I’m a very social person, very passionate about science and education.” Science and teaching is a perfect mix, she said.

She spoke highly of her campus. “Over the last 11 years we’ve grown from 2,000 to 7,000. … The students are hard working. They want to be here.”

The summer after her graduation from the University of New Hampshire she worked as a tutor and counselor for Outward Bound, began pursuing her master’s degree, and applied for teaching and lab positions.

It took her four months to find a job, she said. “I was out there, applying for things left and right.” By her 16th interview she was getting discouraged. “I said if I don’t get something by Christmas I’m going to move.”

On Dec. 19 SMCC called, offering her a position, she said. “I said, ‘Perfect! I guess I’m staying.'” She lives in Scarborough. She drives herself everywhere, breaking down her wheelchair and popping it into her car.

Being a young instructor means paying attention to how she carries herself.

“I definitely have to put forth an authority in the beginning of a class. I don’t wear jeans, I put myself together in professional clothing and act in a professional manner. It’s really important if you’re younger to establish, ‘We’re not friends, I’m your teacher.’”

Her students respect that, and the campus has many professors who help her, she said.

In class she loves what she calls “the Eureka moment,” when students have connected what she’s taught. As an instructor she doesn’t talk about her being in a wheelchair “unless I’m talking about the nervous system or spinal cord injuries.” She’s had some come to her and say she’s an inspiration.

‘Inner beauty’

Most recently Quimby was named Miss Wheelchair Maine, a role she intends to use to promote understanding about disabilities.

“During the winter break I was rewriting my syllabus. I got bored. I went on the Internet and found ‘Miss Wheelchair American Association.'” She entered and won the Maine competition.

“It’s not a beauty pageant, it’s an inner beauty pageant,” Quimby said. Contestants are judged on achievements and advocacy talents. In that role this month she’ll meet U.S. Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins at the Great Women of Maine event, she’ll talk to the South Portland Boys and Girls Club, and will participate in a comedy fundraiser in South Portland.

“I want to have people with disabilities feel more comfortable in society, and other people feel more comfortable in the community. People have bad misconceptions and preconceived notions about disabilities. They just don’t know any better. That’s why I want to educate them.”

For fun, Quimby is taking a cooking class at SMCC. “I’ve learned so much,” she said, showing off pictures of chicken dishes on her smart phone.

She’s about to embark on a project sharing information with disabled college students on which campuses are accessible, which ones aren’t, especially in the winter. “If they’re not cleaning walkways and not chipping ice, we can’t go over there in a wheelchair,” she said.

Her future goals include getting a Ph.D. “And I want to do a paralympic sport, adaptive water skiing. The water’s softer than ice, and I used to be good at it.”

A big part of who Quimby is is staying busy and looking ahead.

When something traumatic happens, people can go one of two ways, she said. “You wallow in it and feel bad for yourself, or take it positively. Say this happened, I need to conquer this and move on.”

She did the latter, and doesn’t stop setting goals.

“That’s what keeps me happy,” she said.

Bonnie Washuk is a staff reporter at the Sun Journal in Lewiston. She can be reached at bwashuk@sunjournal.com

Sidebar Elements

Monica Quimby, 24, of Scarborough, explains fungi to her Biology 1 class at Southern Maine Community College in South Portland. Quimby was paralyzed four years ago in a skiing accident, but did not let that deter her from completing her undergraduate and master’s degrees.