Inspiring grads: Kelly Gerhardt

Kelly Gerhardt

Kelly Gerhardt suffered a stroke at just 21 years old. “I took the time that I needed but was determined to come back to school,” she says. (Photo: Jenny Fontaine)

When Kelly Gerhardt returned to campus after winter break last January, she was looking forward to her May graduation date. But her plans suddenly changed.

On the first day of what was supposed to be her last semester, Gerhardt suffered a stroke at just 21 years old.

She went to the hospital after experiencing double vision and other symptoms, and she was shocked when doctors told her she had experienced a transient ischemic attack. She later learned that she has a small hole in one of the arteries in her heart and an autoimmune blood clotting disorder that contributed to her condition.

“It was definitely a scary 72 hours — I had never even been in a hospital,” said Gerhardt, a senior in psychology.

After a few days, Gerhardt returned to campus, but soon decided to take the semester off to focus on her health.

“I didn’t think about the after effects,” she said. “But after two weeks, I felt them — emotionally and physically it was really hard. I took the time that I needed but was determined to come back to school.”

Since returning to campus in August, she has faced some new challenges, but she’s proud to have faced them in order to finish her degree this month.

“I’m still struggling a little bit, but I’ve found ways to calm the side effects,” she said. “I have some memory issues now — before I could retain things easily, but now it takes a little longer and it’s a lot longer of a process.”

Still, she’s succeeded academically — earning a 3.8 GPA — while commuting from her home in Roselle and holding a part-time job as a beauty adviser at Walgreens.

“I go to every single class, which is extremely important,” she said.

Gerhardt transferred to UIC in 2015 after receiving an associate’s degree from the College of DuPage.

“I never really pictured myself in the city, but when I went on the tour, there was just something about UIC,” she said. “I liked the atmosphere — the diversity, the research opportunities.”

Gerhardt plans to gain some work experience related to her psychology degree for a year before applying to graduate programs in school counseling.

“I really want to be a high school counselor because of the impact that mine had on me,” she said. “I really gravitated toward psychology because the mind just fascinates me.”

Her UIC experience has prepared her well for the future, Gerhardt said.

“The curriculum challenged me to the point where I think about things on a much deeper level than I ever thought I could have,” she said. “It was very specialized, and it has prepared me to work in a school environment.”