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Personification of the Indomitable Spirit

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Losing his sight in a line-of-duty injury as a Bridgeport fire fighter would have knocked the wind out of the sails of a lesser man, but not Roberto “Bo” Diaz, BGS ’12. Forced to retire in December 2009, he decided to pursue a career as a teacher and enrolled in UConn’s Bachelor of General Studies (BGS) program in January 2010.

“I went to school right away against the advice of people who were blind far longer than I had been,” Diaz explains. “But I was stubborn and went ahead and struggled because I didn’t know how to type, didn’t have any computer skills, and wasn’t familiar with accessible and adaptive technologies. My reasoning was, ‘Who taught the first piano player how to play?’ So I just dove right into it, worked very, very hard, and had a surprising amount of success.”

A surprising amount of success is an understatement. Diaz made the Dean’s List every semester, graduated with a 3.84 GPA, won three scholarships, was inducted into several honor societies, won the 2012 UConn Outstanding BGS Student Award, and in Fall 2012, won the New England Region Outstanding Student Award from the University Professional and Continuing Education Association (UPCEA).

Diaz credits his success to the BGS program, which understands and accommodates the needs of adult students, and his BGS counselors who acted as advocates throughout his academic career. The BGS program accepted previous credits from college courses he took during his career as a Marine, and he knew it would help him fulfill his dream of teaching.

“Pursuing a career in education, the interdisciplinary nature of the curriculum affords you the opportunity to be versatile, and the coursework is extremely relevant to the complexities of real world social issues,” he says. “The BGS program was very fulfilling and very challenging without being overwhelming.”

He is also appreciative of UConn’s Center for Students with Disabilities, which provided note takers for his classes, and the UConn professors who motivated him to do his best.

“I had some brilliant minds lending me guidance in the classroom,” he says. “Being back in an academic environment after 28 years, I was fortunate to have Professor Sam Robinson, who personifies the vision of academia. He encourages students to ask themselves ‘What’s at stake and what are the consequences if you fail?’ That was a shot of adrenaline that centralized and recharged my focus.”

Although Diaz has some vision in his left eye (which washes out 100% periodically due to a number of conditions), his limited vision halted his active lifestyle as a fire fighter, community activist, outdoorsman, motorcyclist, and scuba diver.

“All of a sudden you’re going from 60 to zero, and having my income cut by over 50 percent didn’t help,” he says. “There was the lack of mobility; it was one challenge after another. There are so many things that you take for granted – simple things that become not so simple.

“My family was always in public service, community service, social service, activism, and political office – I’ve always been self-reliant and a person who helped other people,” he continues. “I wasn’t used to being in a position where I had to accept help. It was a transition, but I learned to go with the flow and take what life hands you.”

Determined to continue his family’s tradition of community service, Diaz still teaches archery to children with burn injuries at an archery program he established 20 years ago with another Bridgeport fire fighter at the Arthur C. Luf Children’s Burn Camp. When his recertification date came up, he became the first legally blind state certified archery instructor in Connecticut.

He’s always thrilled to hear the cries of delight from his young students when they hit the target, but his biggest thrill was earning his Bachelor of General Studies degree in May 2012.

“Earning a degree from the University of Connecticut is a beautiful thing,” he says. “I’m proud of myself and what I’ve done, but it means more to me for providing an example to my daughter, and honoring the memory of my parents who taught me the concept of the indomitable spirit.”

Now that Diaz has his degree, his goals are to earn a Master’s in Education and teach at-risk youth. Selected as a 2013 member of the Teach for America Corps, he will begin teaching inner city elementary school children in fall 2013.

“This is a dream a long time coming, a dream which became a reality through the care and guidance afforded to me by the wonderful staff and administration of the UConn family,” he adds.

“Bo” Diaz has been honored as the recipient of the 2012-2013 UPCEA Outstanding Continuing Education Student Award. This video was featured at the event as Diaz accepted his award.