Ian Malesiewski, who graduates this week with a degree in neuroscience, spent his free time working with leaders at the University, in the local school district, and across the country to improve opportunities for living anyone with a disability.
Ian Malesiewski has always had lots of energy.
Starting at 5 years old, Malesiewski poured his vigor into sports, rising to the top of his divisions in wrestling and football with a determination that impressed his teammates and coaches.
But after a debilitating accident during a wrestling competition six years ago, Malesiewski was paralyzed from the chest down. Rather than dwell on this change for long, however, Malesiewski learned to redirect his vitality for sports into his academics and service to the community.
“I used to wake up at 5 am to run or lift weights. And now I wake up at the same time, but instead I am studying or being an advocate,” he said. “The same passion I had for athletics is within me but in a different realm.”
Malesiewski graduates this week from the University of Miami with a degree in neuroscience, and minors in chemistry, philosophy, and public health. Although Malesiewski feels lucky he was able to spend his college years at the University of Miami, those who know him well say the University was even more fortunate to have him.
“He will always deflect the greatness and let those around him take credit for it; but it’s not us, it’s him,” said Mykel Billups, the University’s assistant dean of academic support services. “He brings out the best in others.”
During his four years at the University, Malesiewski immersed himself in every possible opportunity to support the disability community on campus and beyond, while also working to maintain a flawless academic record. This is not small feat. Malesiewski has to use a special computer mouse he controls with his mouth, or dictation software, to complete his assignments and take exams.
“Not many people realize the amount of extra work it takes to participate in academics or social activities, and he managed to do both and still contribute to his community at UM, his hometown community, and the national disability community,” said Billups, who oversees the Office of Disability Services (ODS) within the Camner Center for Academic Resources, which provides support and accommodations for students with any learning challenges.
Starting in his first year, Malesiewski got involved with Student Government and most recently served as director of university affairs on its executive board. He also played a leading role on the University’s Coalition on Disabilities, formed through ODS to cultivate a climate of equity, advocacy, inclusion, and support for anyone with disabilities at the University. Through these experiences, Malesiewski said that today, he is proud that ODS can help students with disabilities even more than when he started at the University.
“Being able to meet other students like myself who are passionate about improving student life and the fact that I was able to get so much achieved for students with disabilities, and students in general, was such a rewarding experience,” he said, counting his strong bond with billups as part of what made that possible.
Outside of the University, Malesiewski spent 10 to 15 hours each week volunteering with the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, as well as RespectAbility, to help others with spinal cord injuries make the transition from hospital to home. He also gave talks to help break down stereotypes about how society views and values people with disabilities. In addition, he has spent a year as an intern with Miami-Dade County School Board member Luisa Santos—where he researched and analyzed regulations surrounding policies, like the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and other laws that affect students with disabilities.
In 2021, Malesiewski was recognized as the University’s Newman Civic Fellow, an honor he was tapped for by President Julio Frenk because of his potential for public leadership. The experience helped him to expand on an idea that Malesiewski and two high school friends devised in 2020 to offer scholarships to aspiring college students from his hometown of Erie, Pennsylvania, who have a physical or intellectual disability. They recently celebrated the second year of the DefIANt Scholars program. Malesiewski was also recently inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame and given the Medal of Courage.
To most, his course load and busy schedule may seem exhausting, but Malesiewski said he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Staying involved is part of who I am,” he said.
And while he started college with the desire to become a physician, midway through, Malesiewski began to realize that many of his interests pointed toward supporting the disability community.
“I thought to myself that everything in my life now centers around advocating for others, so I thought the best way to do that in the future would be to go to law school,” he said.
While studying for the law school entrance exams, Malesiewski noticed that the University library could benefit from more updated study guides. So, through the Student Government, I have lobbied for those to be replaced. Malesiewski’s advocacy and work paid off. The books were replaced, and he was recently admitted to Harvard Law School, where he will start in the fall.
When asked if there was someone or something that helped him rise above the many challenges he has faced, Malesiewski said it is his mother, Halli Reid. An athlete herself, Reid was the first woman to swim across Lake Erie—a 24-mile stretch from Canada to Pennsylvania—in 17 hours. Ella’s tenacity and willingness to help others throughout her life, as well as her constant support since her accident, have been invaluable.
“She is the rock for my brother and me, and she always put it in our heads to be well-rounded,” he said. “Seeing her involvements of her and her work ethic and structure of her, it just bled into our lives.”
Reid moved to Miami with Malesiewski to help him get around the city and to assist him on campus. She plans to do the same in Boston. Eventually, Malesiewski hopes that his brother Adam—who is also graduating Friday from Kent State University—will join them. Born just 10 months apart, the brothers are close and FaceTime every day.
Although Malesiewski will be sorely missed at the University, Billups said the student’s leadership has set a strong foundation that now recognizes the disability community as part of most diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives. At Malesiewski’s urging, the coalition recently started a disability ambassador program, so that all students can help spot places on campus that need maintenance, like if a door opener button is no longer working or a lift is in need of repair. The program will help her office de ella recognize problems ahead of time, so that anyone on campus with disabilities will not be hindered by these issues moving forward.
“As a collaborative leader, he brought topics to the table and engaged in conversations that were productive, not destructive,” she said. “And by having him as part of the coalition, other students wanted to be part of it, to help make the campus a more inclusive community.”