Facing adversity is typical for college students in pursuit of a degree. Whether it’s maintaining a great GPA or balancing school and work, personal and academic challenges can arise at any time.
For Katherine Hinojosa, it was more than a year of undiagnosed health complications and a risky brain surgery that almost derailed her journey to a bachelor’s degree.
The Conway, Arkansas, native received a scholarship to UA through Distinguished Young Women. Hinojosa chose the University because she could pursue two of her passions, dance and political science.
“Choosing The University of Alabama was a really easy decision,” said Hinojosa. “Everyone I met made it feel like home and I was able to make instant friendships with people that I only knew for a day or two.”
Hinojosa started her academic career as a dance major. A former member of the International Dance Organization’s Team USA, she competed in modern and jazz. She also was a member of the UA Collegiate Ballroom Competition Team.
As a teenager, Hinojosa had developed her other passion for political science, an interest sparked by characteristics she’s possessed for quite some time.
“At 3 years old, I was already arguing with my parents in an intellectual manner, and I wanted to make good, fair arguments,” she recalls. “I always wanted justice no matter the situation. I eventually realized by pursuing political science, I could achieve my dreams and goals by taking advantage of my personality traits that I’ve had since I was a little girl.”
Hinojosa was a member of Alpha Gamma Delta and Student Government Association. During her time with SGA, she organized the first Miss Unique UA pageant for women in the University’s CrossingPoints program, an effort she describes as her proudest achievement at UA.
“The pageant and months of planning leading up to it were immensely special,” said Hinojosa. “We had hair and makeup artists for the participants and they each had a buddy they could bond with throughout the day. It was amazing to see how valued and empowered they felt throughout the process.”
In 2019, Hinojosa suffered a concussion that forced her to quit her pursuit of a bachelor’s degree in dance. She changed her major to political science and incorporated dance classes into a minor through New College.
While the concussion was then seen as a gamechanger, it paled in comparison to what was on the horizon.
Hinojosa suddenly became severely ill in January 2021, leading to months of bloodwork and dozens of doctors’ visits that provided no solutions. For more than a year, she and her family searched for answers as her health deteriorated, leading to her experiencing multiple seizures each day and having to use a walker to move around.
Due to her health complications, Hinojosa left UA only 12 credit hours shy of earning her degree.
“My life was completely turned upside down,” said Hinojosa. “I never, ever thought I would be able to come back and finish school.”
Earlier this year, Hinojosa visited a neurosurgeon in Detroit who was able to finally identify the root of her health issues.
The neurosurgeon discovered Katherine suffered from a Chiari malformation type 1, a condition in which brain tissue extends into the spinal canal. Symptoms including headaches, unsteady gait and poor hand coordination, all of which Katherine experienced, don’t appear until late childhood or adulthood.
To correct the malformation, Hinojosa would have to undergo surgery to control the progression of symptoms, relieve compression and restore the normal flow of cerebrospinal fluid.
“The surgery was a huge leap of faith for me and my family because we had been through more than a year of really hard times,” she said.
After a successful procedure on March 23, Hinojosa started seeing improvements almost immediately.
“I started gaining feeling in my arms and legs, talking normally and haven’t experienced any seizures since surgery,” said Hinojosa. “Within a week of surgery, I was feeling so much better, and I reapplied to come back to UA.”
Hinojosa returned to UA earlier this summer to finish her coursework, bringing with her a new perspective on life.
“Before, I wanted to do things like have a perfect GPA, be Miss Arkansas and go to Harvard Law School,” she said. “And I still have some of those same dreams. But my outlook has shifted from wanting to achieve things to making the most of this life that I’ve been given.
“I feel like my illness kind of stripped me of my identity. And when I got better, I had to reflect upon who I am now. … while I worried that my mental capacity may not ever be the same after such a terrible illness, I still have the same core values, and I still have the same want and need to help the world.”
Hinojosa’s desire to help the world can be seen in her aspirations after graduation. She plans on writing a book about her experience to provide hope to those in a dark place. In addition, she would like to continue her education and eventually become an attorney specializing in immigration policy.
Despite the obstacles, Hinojosa looks fondly on her time at UA. With the support of friends and faculty including Dr. Allen Linken, who she credits for being a strong mentor, she was able to earn a degree that once looked impossible.
“This degree means just as much, if not more, to my family, doctors, husband and everyone else who supported me through my whole illness as it does to me,” said Hinojosa. “I never thought college was going to be easy, and it certainly wasn’t.
“But at The University of Alabama, there are people who make it easy. And that makes me want to come back and want to learn and want to be a better person. I have never, ever been surrounded by so many fantastic, high-achieving and caring people as I was at The University of Alabama.”
Bryant Welbourne, UA Strategic Communications, email@example.com