FORWARD is a series from Student Affairs featuring Virginia Tech students, faculty, staff, and alumni who have faced, overcome, or learned from life's obstacles and setbacks. FORWARD aims to normalize the conversation about hardships we endure to encourage resilience.

Imagine that you are trying to study. You want to breeze through the material and memorize the information. Instead, you struggle to make sense of the words and sentences.

You take a deep breath. I can do this, you tell yourself.

You dive back in only to misread words, read the same sentence multiple times, and have trouble keeping your eyes on the right line. It’s morning and you’re not tired, but you have to concentrate so hard the lines seem to blur together. You think about writing a paper that’s due, but that task seems equally overwhelming.

“It has been this way for me as long as I can remember,” said Calvin Rizek, a senior from Fairfax, Virginia, majoring in chemical engineering in the College of Engineering. “It’s just normal for me to have to try harder to read.”

Rizek is dyslexic. He struggles to recognize, decode, and spell words. The learning disability is neurobiological.

He is one of 449 students who worked with Services for Students with Disabilities last academic year to receive help with one or more learning disabilities in reading, writing, or mathematics.

“Students should consider consulting with the office when they experience any health impairment that lasts more than a week and interferes or limits access to university programs,” according to Michael Brown, assistant director for SSD.

The office provides accommodations, services, and resources for students with disabilities and temporary injuries or illnesses.

“We consider disability-related classroom and housing accommodations through an interactive process with students,” said Brown. “SSD offers free and confidential consultations for any Virginia Tech student.”

Even if students are unsure if they could benefit from services, Brown said they should consider calling or emailing the office to schedule a consultation appointment to discuss their situation.

Rizek is grateful he received the diagnosis in first grade, much earlier than many who struggle with dyslexia. But when reading and spelling are constant struggles, school is not easy and grades can be a rollercoaster. He remembers not wanting teachers to call on him to read aloud. Fourth grade is when he was finally able to read proficiently.  

High school was a turning point for Rizek.

“My grades in elementary school weren’t as good,” he said. “High school was different. I learned how to work with my disability. I realized I was going to have to work harder to bring my grades up if I was going to be able to go to college. Especially Virginia Tech.”

That realization propelled him forward in the classroom and as an athlete on his high school crew team. Rizek’s willingness to put in extra time and effort paid off on the water and in the classroom.

His grades started to rise – and so did unwanted commentary from peers. “They would make fun of me sometimes,” he said. “They said I was getting good grades because I got extra time on tests and assignments. But they just didn’t understand.”

At Virginia Tech, he seeks out mentors and advocates who can help him. He said SSD was one of his first stops on campus. He relies on accommodations, such as note takers, electronic readers, and additional time on tests.

SSD was able to expand its testing center in Lavery Hall last fall thanks to a generous gift from Robbie Werth ’74, MBA ’81, and his wife, Marianne.

“My advice is to let professors and others on campus know what you need and they will do what they can to help you,” Rizek said. “Don’t be afraid to advocate for yourself.”  

A desire to help people understand more about the learning disability drives him to share his story.

His résumé includes speaking to lawmakers about passing bills, including the READ Act signed into law by President Barack Obama, to help students who have dyslexia succeed. He remembers testifying to a House of Delegates education innovation subcommittee about his struggles right before coming to Virginia Tech and can count among his accomplishments receiving an official proclamation from Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe that recognizes October as Dyslexia Awareness Month.

His also speaks to the group Decoding Dyslexia Virginia, which his mom, Joan, cofounded after both of her sons received the diagnosis, to help parents understand how to help their children who are struggling. Together, they created a video to educate people that dyslexia does not discriminate. It affects people of different races and genders, and from diverse backgrounds.

Rizek is quick to point out that a number of entrepreneurs and celebrities are associated with the disorder – Sir Richard Branson, Steve Jobs, Walt Disney, Will Smith, and Whoopi Goldberg, to name a few.

“With dyslexia, your brain is wired differently,” he said. “You learn to do things in a different way when it’s hard to just read a book to learn about it. That’s a good thing. Especially in the College of Engineering and at Virginia Tech.”  

Written by Tammy Tripp. Illustration by Rebekah Seiler '19.