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Rare neurological condition gives new graduate a special perspective on life

Brooke Kidner reaches commencement after a long, tough journey

Brooke Kidner
Transfer student Brooke Kidner was involved in many student activities even while managing a medical disorder. (Photo/Mike Glier)

It was 2014, and Brooke Kidner was in the hospital again. She was combating severe nausea, headaches and chronic nerve pain, and was sleeping nearly 20 hours a day.

“It felt like I’d been hit by a truck,” said Kidner, who will graduate Friday at USC’s 133rd commencement.

Kidner, a transfer student in her second semester at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, was having a relapse of the rare neurological condition she’d been diagnosed with at age 13. Known as Arnold-Chiari Malformation, the disorder causes compression of the brain stem due to structural defects in the skull.

Kidner found that the condition severely limited her ability to take part in physical activities. The former karate teacher underwent three brain surgeries to alleviate the condition while a teenager, but beyond that there was little else doctors could do.

After graduating from high school in 2009 and doing a short stint in culinary school, Kidner attended community college in Riverside and in Los Angeles for almost three years, studying Arabic, Japanese and sign language. She entered USC Dornsife in spring 2013 and declared a combined major in linguistics and psychology.

“The human mind has always fascinated me, and linguistics is not the study of foreign languages but how language works in the mind, how we are able to create it without even thinking about it,” Kidner said.

Her relapse a year later and the associated absences nearly caused her to fail a class, and her grade point average took a big hit. But between an adviser who advocated for her and a lot of hard work, Kidner managed to stick it out. Since then she has remained mostly asymptomatic, abiding by a long list of restricted activities, and this has given her the opportunity to get involved with activities at USC and in the community.

Jumping right in

As a senior, Kidner participated in Jumpstart, a national early education organization that sends university student volunteers into under-resourced preschool classrooms to improve the students’ language and literacy skills. USC volunteers spend several hours per week working on reading and comprehension with the preschoolers.

She is involved in Undergrad Students in Linguistics at USC, where she programs social and academic events. A woman of Cherokee descent, Kidner is also part of the USC chapter of the national Native American Student Union organization, which organizes service-oriented activities and events.

Kidner integrated her Native American heritage into her undergraduate thesis by studying the metrical stress patterns of the Lakota language, analyzing where the emphasis is placed on different words. This spring, she visited the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota to do field work with native speakers.

All the sweeter

Kidner’s road to graduation has been lengthy and complicated, which makes her arrival even sweeter.

It took me a really long time and an arduous journey to get here so I am making the most out of graduation, the ceremony, everything.

Brooke Kidner

“It took me a really long time and an arduous journey to get here so I am making the most out of graduation, the ceremony, everything.”

She said her medical condition has given her perspective on how to live life.

“With my unique experience of being disabled and not knowing when I’m going to relapse, my attitude is, ‘Do it now,’” she said.

Case in point: She is deferring her enrollment in a master’s program at the University of Chicago in order to teach English in Spain for a year.

“I’m healthy enough to do it, so this is the year I’m going to be able to make a difference in my life and others’ and get some rewarding experiences out of it. Because that’s what life is all about — not selfies, trinkets or souvenirs. It’s about experiences.”

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