Going to university was a source of hope for this Fall 2020 graduate

Posted on Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Portrait of Jesse Lesniowski

If there’s one thing Jesse Lesniowski learned after surviving a brutal car crash in high school, it’s that advocating for yourself is crucial. Because of the injuries he sustained, it took Jesse a few more years than expected to graduate high school and complete his undergraduate degree in environmental science at uOttawa. “But that’s okay,” he says. “I went at my own pace, I learned to fight for what I needed in order to succeed and I made room in my life for the things that make me happy.”

Despite the lasting trauma from his accident, Jesse will graduate on Sunday, November 29 with an Honours BSc in Environmental Science, Geochemistry and Ecotoxicology from the Faculty of Science. He recently got accepted into a master’s program in environmental sustainability at uOttawa’s Institute of the Environment.

Lucky to have survived

On his way back to Ottawa from Toronto in July 2011, two months after Jesse turned 16, he and his girlfriend at the time were sitting in the backseat of a car that crashed on the highway near Belleville. There were no casualties, thankfully, but the pair sustained severe injuries and were hospitalized for several months in Kingston, Ontario.

“I was in the ICU, getting surgeries every few days, you know, just trying to put myself back together,” says Jesse. “My digestive tract was severely damaged because the seatbelt cut into my body. A lot of muscle got cut, my rib and sternum broke, my lung was punctured and I had to get about two metres of my small intestine removed. Basically, any organ that wasn't necessary to keep in my body, is gone now. So that’s what led to my disabilities.”

To this day, Jesse lives with chronic pain and fatigue. Eating causes him tremendous pain and he has severe digestive issues. He carries pain pills with him wherever he goes, and he has to manage his time effectively, so he doesn’t overexert himself.

Thinking of going to university kept him going

To finish high school, Jesse took most of his classes from home and his physiotherapy sessions counted towards his gym credits. One of his favourite online subjects was environmental science, which was only offered to students learning remotely. He enjoyed it so much, in fact, that he applied to uOttawa’s Faculty of Science to continue studying it.

“When I was in the hospital in Kingston, my bed was right beside the window and Queen's University was one of the few things I could see,” he says. “Seeing the campus was a source of hope for me. I thought, if I was able to make it to university, maybe I would have a chance at living a normal life. That idea gave me hope and made me excited for my future again. I think it really helped me heal and get through that tough time.”

Jesse also reflected on how lucky he was to have an occupational therapist assigned to his case. Throughout high school and university, she helped him access the services he needed to do well in school, including uOttawa’s Student Academic Success Service (SASS). She showed him the importance of advocating for himself, something he was determined to pay forward through awareness and student advocacy.

Jesse Lesniowski and Dasa Soekotjo holding a sign with the Pride rainbow and the Science Students’ Association's logo

Jesse Lesniowski, left, and Dasa Soekotjo, right, during the Science Students’ Association's 101 Week in 2018.

A voice for LGBTQ+ people with disabilities

“I’ve heard from students that it can be really challenging to advocate for oneself without support, or the feeling of support,” says Jesse. “Students who don’t have the same kind of help I did risk getting overwhelmed and might end up giving up, especially if they don’t look like they’re entitled to special accommodations. My disability is invisible. You wouldn’t know that something was wrong unless I was to take off my shirt. Most people are kind and understanding, but there have been times where I’ve had to deal with people’s disbelief and their hostility. I just wanted to be there for other students like me, let them know that it’s not a weakness to be vocal about their needs, and show them that they’re not alone.”

Jesse regularly contributed to the online magazine Her Campus, where he wrote about his disability, body positivity and accessing important resources. He also fundraised for CHEO, Shinerama (Canada’s largest postsecondary fundraiser in support of Cystic Fibrosis Canada) and Egale Canada, an advocacy organization for LGBTQI2S people and issues.

“There are a lot of LGBTQ+ people who have disabilities who aren’t being recognized or represented within the community,” says Jesse. “So, no matter what I’m a part of, I make a point of talking about my disability and sharing my experience with others in order to remove the stigma that exists around that topic.”

Jesse Lesniowski, posing as his drag persona, Saltina Shaker.

Jesse Lesniowski, as Saltina Shaker.

An active member of the uOttawa community

Jesse was vice-president of philanthropic activities for the Science Students’ Association (SSA) and acted as the student representative for his department. He created the Environmental Science Association, a club under the SSA that brought students from his department closer together. He also organized and hosted several drag shows, performing under the name Saltina Shaker, to raise money for the SSA.

“I have to choose my activities wisely because I have to rest up and ice my body the whole next day to recover,” he says. “Performing with a disability can be very taxing, but I enjoy it so much that I give myself the time and space to be a part of that community. I took three courses per semester because I know my limits. I knew anything more would burn me out, especially if I wanted to take part in extracurricular activities that would make me happy and enrich my university experience. I had to make sacrifices in order to make room for what I love, and that’s fine, because the connections I’ve made along the way are priceless to me.”

uOttawa Fall Convocation 2020

Jesse will be one of 894 undergraduate students graduating at Fall Convocation on November 29. For more information about the ceremonies, to find resources to customize your online convocation experience or to register to receive your degree, go to the 2020 Convocation page.

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