Axel Getz '14: Academic, Rower, Skier, and Dyslexia Advocate

This article originally appeared in The Compass Winter 2018 issue.

When Axel Getz clicked his boots into his ski bindings at the start of the Birkebeinnerrennet in the small town of Rena, Norway, he was probably not thinking of the parallels between his own story and the history of this famous 54 kilometer cross-country ski marathon. But the story of the race mirrors Axel’s own journey with dyslexia, supported by powerful allies including family, friends, and The Windward School. In the beginning of the 13th century, a civil war between the Baglers and the Birkebeiners rent the kingdom of Norway.  The Birkebeiner king had been assassinated, and his infant son soon became the Baglers’ next target. The baby’s escape, on the backs of two skiers across punishing terrain in a raging blizzard, is commemorated every year in Norway with the gruelling Birkebeinerrennet, which follows their route. Similar to preparing for and competing in this race, Axel’s journey with dyslexia has required many hours of intense training, practice, commitment, and support.

When Axel was in first grade, his teachers at Greenwich Country Day School recommended that he be tested for dyslexia and other learning disabilities. The school was already supporting Axel and some of his classmates by offering special tutoring in a separate classroom, but Axel was young enough that he did not see himself as different. As a happy and creative first grader, he wasn’t aware of his dyslexia. “A little kid isn’t thinking of academic performance,” he recalls. Axel’s good fortune to be identified with dyslexia at such a young age was the first part of his journey towards success. “Looking back,” he says, “I was blessed to be diagnosed early and very lucky to be able to go to Windward. I don’t know where I’d be without it.” On the first day of second grade, Axel expected to arrive at Greenwich Country Day School as he had for the past two years, yet much to his surprise, instead of GCDS, he was dropped off at Windward and told that this was now his new school. Undaunted, Axel went through the doors of this new environment and remembers that “the first day of school went very well.” The seven years of his time at Windward continued in the same vein. A few of Axel’s fond memories of being at Windward include gaining inspiration from teachers like Patricia Gay, who imparted an interest in world history that continues to motivate him today; feeling the warmth and compassion from teachers like Marsha Finkelstein, whose extraordinary kindness made Axel feel safe when he left the lower school to attend Westchester Middle School; and the constant encouragement from teachers like Robin Travers, who urged Axel “to think I could do anything, that I was smart and worth it, and that I had to give everything that I’ve got.”

Windward imparted academic skills and lit a creative fire that continues to be an integral part of him today; Axel’s experience at Windward left him with “a toolkit for everyday life that is so important to hold onto and use.” He continues, “the skills Windward gives you evens out your playing field. And beyond that, it’s a program that shouldn’t just be specific to people with learning disabilities – it helps everyone.” After he left Windward, Axel recognized that a learning disability can make an individual feel inadequate in comparison to his or her peers without learning disabilities, “but when you go back to the outlines and skills you learned at Windward, it provides comfort and stability and reminds you that you are not inadequate, that you can do it.”

At Windward, Axel was part of the student council; participated in the newly established WE CARE program that raised global awareness and tolerance; and received the Dr. James Van Amburg Award, which is named after former head of school and is given to students nominated by the faculty for academic excellence and exemplary involvement in the School. Axel’s teachers still remember him as a dedicated member of the Windward community, a diligent student, and a happy and thoughtful friend. Most importantly, they remember Axel as someone unafraid to take risks, unafraid to challenge himself and to carry the weight of that challenge through to completion. As a result of his education at Windward, Axel is an advocate of “making sure people know that you learn differently by going and talking to professors and making sure you are visible, especially when you’re dyslexic in an intense academic institution.” The supportive and protective environment of Windward and the partnerships with his teachers showed Axel that “you don’t need to go through it alone; you can go out and seek help; and you definitely have a reason to ask for it. Tell them about yourself and your way of learning.”

After Windward, Axel attended Proctor Academy, a boarding school in Andover, New Hampshire. The moment Axel stepped on the Proctor Academy campus, he immediately felt that it was a friendly and kind place, like Windward. He saw it as a great next step. Proctor was a place where Axel felt he could get used to a world that was not Windward, a world where he had  to explain to others about his learning differences and advocate for himself, where not every class supported him in his disability. Axel knew that the goal of Windward’s support system was for students to internalize the skills and strategies that would give them independence and success in a world not designed for individuals who learned differently. And clearly, Axel’s years at Windward and his own desire to explore the places that some might shy away from allowed him to thrive at Proctor. During his time there, he was elected vice president of the school and president of both the Gay-Straight Alliance and the Eco-Reps. He also earned the dance award, the pottery award, the Colby Book Prize award, the Aldo Leopold Award for environmental work, the Actions Speak Louder Than Words award, the Alice S. Fowler Award for the student that gave the most to Proctor in their fourth year, and the award for which Axel is most proud – the English Award. English was the most challenging subject for Axel, and winning the English Award was a personal success for him – the winning of a long race that had begun back in the first grade.  

Proctor is also where Axel began his lifelong love of cross-country skiing. A downhill racer all his life, Axel joined the Nordic team on a whim, not realizing that cross-country skiing is one of the most athletic and challenging sports there is. Through the intense training and long races, Axel developed not just strength but community – a key component to his success in many of the challenges he already faced. Cross-country skiing took him to beautiful wilderness untrammelled by the public and offered him opportunities to tap hidden reserves of physical and mental endurance. As a junior, Axel travelled with his team to Norway to race the Birkebeinerrennet as one of the few foreign competitors who ski the race. Cross-country ski racing is an intensely personal endeavour, with the skier struggling with natural elements and physical exertion. The sport inspires devotion because of its challenges, and simply completing the race is considered to be a major achievement, a testament to one’s will and commitment. Axel has a willingness to put himself in uncomfortable situations that challenge and push his limits, and his completion of the Birkebeinerrennet is just one such accomplishment, joining a list of many honors he earned at Windward, Proctor Academy, and, eventually, Brown University.

Early in his time at Proctor, Axel identified Brown University as the college he wanted to attend. He knew that Brown’s open curriculum would be a good personal challenge where he would find success. He applied early decision and gained admittance. The transition to Brown, however, would not be as easy as it had been at Windward or Proctor despite his aspiration to attend since he was a sophomore in high school. The support network he had in high school disappeared, and there was only one other student from Proctor whom Axel did not know well. He also felt uncertain that he would meet many students with the same disabilities as he had. In addition, the atmosphere was intensely academic, rigorous, and fast-paced. Determined, Axel turned to what had worked for him in his past challenges – his advisor. Thanks to the support of this powerful ally, he weathered the challenges of much larger classes and less available professors. In spite of the initial difficulties, it was an exciting time for him to begin learning things at a college level, and he soon adjusted, pulling in strong grades by the end of the first semester.

Axel realized that he was able adapt quickly and recalled another useful tool by “going back again to what I learned at Windward, where the skills they teach you change how you think and how you approach a problem. I had a lot of tools to choose from in my repertoire of academic skills.”  

At Brown, Axel was more explicitly aware of his dyslexia than he had been at Proctor, especially when he took his first mid-term exam for his environmental science class. He went to Brown’s center for students with learning disabilities to take the exam and discovered that out of the 180 people who were taking the course, there was only one other person who had been granted extra time along with him. It was an illuminating moment for Axel, who suddenly saw the impact of his education at Windward from a completely different perspective. Axel felt the full force of his journey with dyslexia and became even more keenly aware of the support structure that had helped him realize his abundant gifts at an institution like Brown.

While an undergraduate, Axel applied to the highly competitive year-abroad program at Oxford University. To be considered for the program, applicants must maintain a 3.75 GPA or higher, complete multiple sit-down interviews with representatives from the University, and submit a thousand-word statement of purpose. He was selected along with two other students from Brown, and in his junior year, Axel matriculated at St. Peter’s College at Oxford University. He saw Oxford as a necessary step to push himself as an academic (“a scary proposition for someone with dyslexia,” he notes), given that they were writing 2,500-word papers once or twice a week.

The first time Axel turned in a paper to his professor in Chinese archaeology, it was returned to him with five pages of mark ups so dense, they almost equalled the length of his original paper. He recognizes that “when a teacher gives you pages full of red marks, it can hurt, but it’s also a learning opportunity. You do it every week at Oxford, and you get these thoughtful and really beneficial comments on your papers – it makes a difference. Quality and frequency of critiques makes a difference.”

There was also the vaunted tutorial system at Oxford, where Axel had to read and defend his paper to the professor in a one-on-one session that could last over an hour.  The professor would attempt to find holes in the paper, and Axel would defend his reasoning and his arguments in an exercise that not only served to sharpen his analytical and verbal skills but also heightened his ability to see flaws and errors in his own writing. Axel found the academic environment and the social culture of Oxford’s colleges invigorating as well. The university was cosmopolitan, with many different cultures and perspectives. Waking up at six a.m., he rowed crew for two and a half hour practices four-to-five days a week. It was an excellent way to meet people, and with Axel rowing in the second seat, his boat won the Summer Eights, a four-to-five day regatta on the Isis River that has been a part of Oxford culture for more than 200 years. Axel’s journey through his year at Oxford progressed smoothly, and he returned to Brown buzzing with the energy and expansiveness that living in another country can inspire.

Back at Brown, Axel maintains a 3.9 GPA as a major in environmental science and archaeology. He spent the beginning of 2018 in Taiwan on a study comparing how Taiwanese and American museums represent indigenous people and how best to de-colonize museums so that they more authentically represent these minority cultures. His senior thesis is on the military archaeology complex, specifically how archaeologists can be legitimizing factors for occupying military forces and how military occupation can contribute to the looting and damage of archaeological sites. Axel’s other passion is dance, and he is member of the Attitude Dance company, a lyrical, jazz, and modern dance company, which practices three times a week for three-hour practices. This semester he will be choreographing a dance piece for the first time, a challenge that thrills him and demands many further hours outside of the classroom. In order to manage the stress of writing his thesis and managing so many other important projects, Axel makes use of Brown’s writing center, which he has found helpful. 

Throughout his life’s journey Axel has held many roles such as rower, skier, academic, dancer, artist, potter, advocate, mentor, and writer – just to name some of the recent ones. He is no stranger to the commitment it takes to traverse the figurative mountains placed in his path. He carries the weight of knowing that he will always need to advocate for himself due to his dyslexia, but it has in no way stopped him from achieving an impressive array of experiences and accolades. If there is ever a moment when Axel may need that extra push, he knows he can always turn to his community of family and friends and to the lessons he learned from Windward.