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STEM scholar with autism found opportunity at TCC

Shannon O’Hara Wiora has Asperger syndrome, a developmental disorder characterized by difficulties in social interaction and nonverbal communication. She’d often overhear the word “retarded” from her peers in high school.

Yet she started taking classes at Tidewater Community College at 16. Today the 19-year-old is part of the Women’s Center STEM Promise Scholarship program. O’Hara is completing a computer science associate degree to go with a business degree.

When relaxed, O’Hara is engaging and forthcoming about how she learned to overcome both a disability and difficult circumstances that might have defeated others. 

“Autistic people know how to get through challenges more than most people because we face them every day,” she said.

O’Hara’s world opened on the Virginia Beach Campus. The word she uses again and again to describe TCC is “opportunity.”

Accepted into the STEM Promise Scholarship Program in 2018, she is part of a cohort that receives paid tuition and fees for two years while completing a degree in a STEM field.

This summer, O’Hara is one of three STEM scholars selected to participate in the Southeast Coalition for Engagement and Exchange in Nanotechnology Education program, an internship for students from underrepresented communities. As part of that program, she receives training in accelerated nanotechnology and a $2,000 stipend.

​One of her most eye-opening experiences came last summer in Chicago when O’Hara attended the Disability: IN conference. She was selected from a competitive application pool to take part in an all-expenses trip to be part of the annual conference. The educational and networking event focuses on developing strategies for ensuring people with disabilities in the workplace thrive.

“I never knew there were so many opportunities for different technology degrees,” said O’Hara, who is especially interested in cognitive science. “I got to meet different recruiters and people from all over the U.S. I even now have a connection with Microsoft.”

She’s also been contacted by Cornell University and other four-year universities about a possible transfer destination when she graduates from TCC.

O’Hara would like to use her computer science background in an innovative way. “You can build your own creation in computer science,” she said. “I’d like to see what I can do to help people like me succeed.”

She recently became a board advisor for the nonprofit Family Voices. That allows her to promote acceptance of young adults and children with disabilities and weigh in on decisions with policymakers. She hopes to enhance acceptance of people with disabilities, while encouraging others to succeed and accomplish their goals.    

O’Hara, who plans to walk in TCC’s spring commencement exercises, uses words including strong, stubborn and willful when talking about herself. Her TCC experiences allow her to offer one more – “confident.”