Michaela Lynch '03: Self-Advocacy was Windward’s Greatest Gift

This article originally appeared in The Beacon Spring 2015 issue.

When Michaela Lynch ’03 entered The Windward School as a fifth grader in 2000, in many ways she was the exact opposite of what she is like today. As the “shy girl from Bronxville,” she was nervous about starting a new school and making new friends. She was also keenly aware that she was not keeping up academically with her classmates, especially in reading.

Today, Michaela is a Rhodes College graduate with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English-Creative Writing. She served as vice president of her sorority Delta Delta Delta (“Tri Delta”) and quickly discovered her passion for volunteer work helping children for the sorority’s national philanthropic partner, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Since their sorority affiliated with the organization in 1999, Tri Delta collegiate and alumnae members from around the country have raised over $31 million to support research at St. Jude.

Upon graduation from Rhodes, Michaela moved to St. Louis to work in private wealth management but soon realized that it wasn’t the right fit for her. Eight months in, she received an unexpected phone call from St. Jude asking if she would like to work in their local fundraising office.

Michaela didn’t have to think twice. She was soon transferred to Manhattan, where Michaela has a position as senior regional development representative in the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital Fundraising Office.

Michaela’s responsibilities include maximizing funds raised for the hospital; increasing support for and awareness of St. Jude; leading special events in New York City, Westchester, Long Island, and Greenwich; and working with some of St. Jude’s larger supporting companies through the hospital’s promotional campaigns. She travels all over the country to do public speaking on behalf of the organization and was recently asked to speak at the Forum for Nonprofits at the New York Junior League headquarters on the Upper East Side. As one of the youngest professionals on the panel, Michaela will be on a committee with other successful nonprofit individuals to discuss best practices for recruitment and training.

Being called “shy” is long behind her.

“Working at St. Jude constantly reminds me that we have so much to be thankful for,” she said. “All of these things I never thought I’d be able to do, I’m now doing, which is pretty cool.”

The self-advocacy skills that she learned at Windward combined with determination, grit, and resilience have brought Michaela much of her success and happiness. The journey, however, has not been without tribulation.

In school, “I always took my time doing my work, but I kept telling my mother that I couldn’t understand what I was reading,” Michaela said. “There was also a ‘unique’ experiment going on in my fourth grade in Bronxville. One year, they tried putting two full classes in one classroom, so there were 70 students with two teachers. It was really challenging because I needed one-on-one attention from my teachers. I read slowly and could not comprehend material like other people.”

She remembers reading Weekly Reader Magazine articles “over and over again and still not processing the information.” Eventually, Michaela was taken out of class for extra support.

“But I’m a normal kid!” she remembers saying to herself. “Can’t I just be with everyone else?”

The fact that other students were asking, “Why does Michaela always have to be pulled out of class?” also weakened her self-esteem.

Michaela’s mother had heard about The Windward School and arranged an interview. Her daughter soon had a new opportunity ahead of her.

“I was thrilled,” Michaela said. “From the start, I knew I was in a safe place. Windward is such a happy place. The school is beautiful, and everyone is so warm and friendly. I remember my very first day so well. I was nervous (obviously) but was mostly excited because I would be in a school where everyone was in the same situation: they had learning disabilities, too.”

While gaining academic success at Windward, Michaela continued to build upon her skills to become a good learner. This, in turn, led to what Michaela says was the School’s greatest gift of all: “Learning to be a good self-advocate.” Her involvement with theater productions, especially, built a newly discovered confidence.

“I couldn’t believe that I was actually memorizing scripts,” Michaela said as she recalled her roles as an orphan in Annie, Glinda the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz, Sarah Brown in Guys and Dolls, and Chava in Fiddler On the Roof.

“Memorization was hard, but I was determined to do well. If we ever needed extra help with lines or a song, there was always a Windward teacher to give us extra support. I definitely wasn’t good at acting, but it was really fun. It was also a great way to hang out with new friends after school and get me out of my shell. When I look back and see all of the singing and acting that I used to do, it sort of scares me!”

Michaela continues to be a star in everything she does. Though returning to her town high school in ninth grade was challenging, her academic preparation and self-advocacy skills served her well in all of her endeavors.

“In college, everyone wants to be smart and successful in class,” she said. “But at Rhodes, there was absolutely no support. I wasn’t a good test taker, and I knew I wasn’t going to do well if I didn’t make an active decision to work really hard and to let my teachers know that I had a learning disability. They had to know me and know that I wanted to succeed.

“It was a requirement to take three semesters of foreign language,” she said. “I was daunted and overwhelmed. Going to my professor’s office was critical to my academic success. I went to him every day after class. He would do the entire class in Spanish, and I’d go to him afterward and ask if he could tell me in English what he had just taught. By going to my professors’ offices either before or after classes, I made sure they all knew I was a hard worker and wanted to do well.”

“In my sophomore year, I had an English professor who thought I should consider changing tracks to something a bit easier for me. That just made me want to prove even more that I could do it,” Michaela said.

Michaela takes a big sister role in encouraging her brother Liam ’12 to do the same. Although the siblings did not overlap during their time at The Windward School, he attended from first through eighth grade. Now a senior at Bronxville High School, Liam is challenging himself with difficult courses and is even studying Spanish, despite being language-exempt. Along with excelling academically, he is on varsity lacrosse and plays on elite travel teams. During his sophomore year in high school, Liam committed to Fairfield University for lacrosse and will attend this fall.

“Although my brother and I have different learning disabilities, I always tell him, ‘You are smart. If you work hard, do your best and self-advocate, people will take notice.’”

“You have to put yourself out there because there will be a time when everyone––whether you have a learning disability or not––will find some course really difficult,” Michaela continued. “Make sure that your teachers know that you want to do well, even if you’re having a hard time learning the material. Let teachers know that you are struggling so that they know you need the extra help.”

“I am incredibly thankful for my experience at Windward,” Michaela said. “I realize today how lucky I am to have been able to attend this school and to be taught by teachers who really cared about my success both inside and outside the classroom. I appreciate the support over the years and continue to carry with me all of the lessons I learned at Windward. “The number one gift The Windward School taught me was how to be a self-advocate. It has truly helped me in everything I do.”