Saint Leo University theater student Kathryn "Katie" Huettel recently attended a play in which all of the performers had some type of disability. Putting on unique events like this is exactly what the 21-year-old senior has envisioned herself being involved in upon graduating.
Huettel, who sometimes goes by "Kat," was born in Hunan Province in China. Her birth parents put her up for adoption when she was just seven months old because of the nation's "one child policy" to deter overpopulation. So, it was Jennifer and Steve Huettel who came and adopted she and her brother, Matthew, to give them a chance at a successful future.
"I consider myself a survivor of one in a million," Huettel says proudly.
Her dad, Steve Huettel, was an award-winning reporter for the Tampa Tribune and St. Petersburg Times for nearly three decades in total and passed away in 2018. The family has a 16-year-old cat, Ginger, who is part Siamese.
Selecting Saint Leo University
Huettel is a 2016 alumna of Pepin Academy in Tampa and was salutatorian of her graduating class.
Initially, she became aware of Saint Leo University when she saw billboards for it on the road. She then took a trip up to its University Campus north of Tampa to check it out.
"I liked how welcoming the campus felt to me," she explains. "I wanted a smaller school that was close enough to home but still far enough where I could be independent. I liked how they knew everyone's name and treated you like a person rather than just a number."
It was an advisor in the admissions office, Hortencia Gomez, who played a big role in helping her land on Saint Leo for her college education.
"She was so helpful throughout the whole process," she says.
Choosing a Bachelor's Degree in Theater
When she enrolled at Saint Leo in the fall of 2016, education was her original major because she knew she wanted to teach. But since she had a great interest in the performing arts, she didn't hesitate to move over to the bachelor's degree in theater program when the university launched it in the fall of 2019. She also knew she could still pursue teaching in some fashion within this field.
"I was involved in some of the theater productions on campus, so this major just fit me perfectly," she confides. "In this program, we're learning all about creativity, which can be applied to so many different types of career fields."
A few Saint Leo professors have been memorable to her throughout her educational journey. Dana Abernathy, who teaches classes on special education, was very helpful to her and always made herself available. Dr. Alicia Corts, an instructor in the bachelor's degree in theater program, has also been extremely supportive.
"I should mention that all of my professors will reach out to students who might not have the best grades to talk to them and se what they are struggling with. They won't just let you fail because they want to help you succeed."
She is a member of Saint Leo's chapter of Alpha Psi Omega, a theater honor society on campus.
"Apparently it was really big on campus back in the '80s, but Dr. Corts brought it back recently."
Huettel has lived on campus during her entire time as a Saint Leo student. She says doing group projects and meeting others have been two things she has found to be so much more convenient by being on campus.
She loves the core value of community and is even incorporating it into a theater project she's working on.
"We are a small community on campus and the support is so meaningful," she says.
Huettel doesn't mind sharing with others that she has both attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and Tourette syndrome.
"I've definitely been bullied, but it doesn't negatively affect my mindset," she says. "Also, I say why not be open and try to educate people about these conditions instead of being overly sensitive and have people talk down to you. I want people to ask me questions about this."
She explains that Tourette syndrome is a neurological condition involving a chemical imbalance in the brain. It can present both vocal ticks and motor ticks, which result in uncontrolled speech and movements.
"It's more common to show up in kids who are around 8 or 9 years old. I've taken medication in the past, but my ticks have gotten less severe over time. I don't scream and pound my chest like I did as a kid."
According to Huettel, there is a big stereotype that those with Tourette syndrome curse a lot. Known as coprolalia, this is a much less common symptom.
In terms of ADHD, she says it can cause behavioral issues and makes it hard for people to sit still.
"With ADHD, I get distracted easily and need a little extra time to think," she says. "One of my high school teachers who had it explained it well by saying that those with ADHD think everything in their environment is important to them."
She says anyone who wants to experience what ADHD is like should check out the simulation on understood.org.
In terms of support, Huettel says everyone in Saint Leo's Office of Accessibility Services at University Campus has been incredibly helpful to her.
"Christine Georgallis [a former director of the office] was one of the reasons I got accepted into Saint Leo. Nikkia Gumbs [another former director] encouraged me to major in theater even though people had told me that it would be hard to get a job in this field. Michael Bailey [the current director] has been very approachable and nice to work with. Also, Brittany Leigh has been so helpful."
For any prospective students with disabilities considering Saint Leo, she offers up some wise words.
"Go to the office or call them up and get to know them. By getting to know them on a personal level, it will make it much more comfortable for everyone when you start working with them. It will make getting any accommodations you may need so much easier."
It was during her middle school years when she first got involved in the performing arts.
"I started with chorus. Then I got into dance and then drama," she says. "I have a lot of energy. Theater helps me expend that energy and is just a lot of fun since I have a good imagination."
In her three years at Saint Leo, Huettel has had the opportunity to perform in several theater stage shows. She has been part of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Women on the Move, The Secret in the Wings, The Fantasticks and Return to the Forbidden Planet.
"To get ready for a show, I read my lines over and over and repeat them out loud," she says. "But I don't necessarily look at them word for word because it's better to understand the context of the lines and when those lines are being delivered."
In her spare time, she enjoys making and selling accessories like purses, tote bags and jewelry out of recycled plastic and magazines.
Pursuing a Passion
This past summer, Huettel volunteered with Pyramid, Inc., a Florida-based nonprofit that offers various arts and educational programs for adults with disabilities. The director of performing arts at Pyramid who also operates Theatre eXceptional put on a production of Mary Poppins that she got to attend
"It was so cool being involved with this organization, and I hope to be able to help them in the future," she says.
In her view, it's all about changing stereotypes.
"My number-one goal is to put people with disabilities on stage. I want to show the world that we can do great things no matter what others assume about people with disabilities. Everyone should know the name Ali Stroker. She was the first person in a wheelchair to win a Tony Award earlier this year."
Wherever her path may lead, lending a helping hand to those around her is what she truly wants to do.
"I want to help the world through creativity."
Photo credit: The photographs included in this blog article were provided by Kathryn Huettel and are used with permission.