What’s stopping you? Student overcomes challenges of genetic disorder and gets on pathway to career

Students, faculty and staff at Tarrant County College Northeast can’t miss Catherine Spurgin. She’s the one always in purple.

“Purple backpack, purple coat, purple shirt, purple lanyard – her favorite color is purple!” said Susan Thillen, one of Spurgin’s instructors.

For Spurgin, purple has deep meaning, reflecting both her faith and what she has overcome to reach where she is today.

“It’s a color of royalty,” explained Spurgin. “I’m the daughter of the One True King Jesus Christ. It’s also one of the colors for Sotos syndrome.”

Sotos syndrome is Spurgin’s rare genetic disorder, diagnosed in one in 10,000 to 14,000 births. Represented by purple and yellow awareness ribbons, Sotos syndrome is a neuromuscular condition characterized by intellectual disabilities, low muscle tone, delayed movement abilities, social and behavioral difficulties, and kidney or heart defects. In Spurgin’s case, Sotos syndrome first manifested as a malformed heart that required corrective surgery when she was an infant. Spurgin also experiences dyscalculia (difficulty in comprehending mathematics), severe attention deficit disorder and some speech problems.

“For Catherine, junior high and high school were primarily about learning facts,” said her father, Terry Spurgin. “It was a huge struggle for her, because, although Catherine’s brain is really good at memorizing information, she lacks a good mental filing system—so information goes in, but it’s extremely difficult to retrieve. She knows things but has difficulty recalling them.”

Despite those challenges, Spurgin was committed to pursuing higher education.

“I wanted to go to college because it would help me learn new things,” said Spurgin. “I would get to meet new people and see people I haven’t seen in a while. I would get to represent God on campus.”

TCC Northeast was a natural fit for Spurgin. It was local, and the campus offers STEPS—Skills, Training & Enrichment for Promoting Success, a Transitional Skills program that is part of TCC Northeast Community Education & Engagement. STEPS helps individuals with special needs improve their academic abilities, employability, social skills and self-sufficiency.

“TCC has given Catherine the chance to ease into college, beginning with STEPS,” said Terry Spurgin. “The program has helped reinforce previous learning and familiarized her with college schedules and expectations.”

Spurgin follows STEPS’ Enrichment Pathway, focusing on reading, writing, math and social competencies, and the Career Exploration Pathway, which develops work-related strengths.

LaVerne Hernandez, lead STEPS instructor, met Spurgin when she enrolled in the program in 2012. Hernandez says Spurgin works hard and believes in herself.

“I have seen Catherine transition and transform, growing in leaps and bounds,” praised Hernandez. “She takes control of her learning, sets goals and accomplishes everything she sets out to achieve. She meets her challenges head on and sets her expectations high.”

STEPS has given Spurgin opportunities to serve others through PALS, the program’s social club. PALS conducts service projects for the campus and community; Spurgin and her fellow students have gathered donations for school supplies for those in need, collected teddy bears for a local hospital and conducted a snack drive for the campus food pantry.

“I got involved with PALS because I wanted to grow friendships with my classmates and to help the club grow and become known around campus,” said Spurgin, who became the club’s secretary. “I also wanted to represent God in the PALS club.”

Besides her classroom studies and PALS participation, STEPS has nurtured Spurgin’s knowledge and talents in other ways. Instructors and staff members have allowed her to help with administrative tasks, act as a teaching assistant and take prospective students on tours.

“These successes have given her the confidence to take on new challenges and responsibilities,” said her mother Betty Spurgin, noting that STEPS staff and instructors “don’t patronize students but treat them with respect, realize they can learn and want them to succeed.”

After establishing a strong foundation through STEPS, Spurgin was ready to move forward in her education. In fall 2018, she enrolled in the Office Assistant Program, a workforce program in TCC Northeast’s Academic Affairs division. The coursework includes keyboarding, record keeping, customer service and software usage for managing documents, creating spreadsheets and handling email.

“Catherine works so hard to be organized, studies concepts so she excels at tests and keeps all her work for documentation,” said Thillen, an adjunct professor for the Office Assistant Program who taught Spurgin’s Excel and records management classes. “She is a joy to be around and quite an inspiration to me.”

As part of her studies, Spurgin has taken on internships in various TCC Northeast departments, including the President’s Office. She helps keep the campus event calendar up to date, among other tasks.

“Catherine has a wonderful attitude and work ethic,” commented Michelle Burris, executive administrative assistant for the President’s Office. “She arrives early and keeps a smile on her face throughout her shift.”

The internships are an invaluable aspect of Spurgin’s education, bringing to life concepts she learns in the classroom.

“The internship program has helped me practice some administrative skills and prepare for my future career,” said Spurgin.

Between her internship and classes, Spurgin is learning to balance the demands of a heavy workload.

“This semester the hardest part of college is the long hours, working on trying to get my two Office Assistant Program classes done at the same time,” she said. “The way I get through it is that I work hard and pray and know that God would be there with me, and knowing that I am representing the STEPS program.”

By all accounts, she is thriving. Spurgin expects to earn her Office Assistant Program certification at the end of 2020, and she has strengthened her problem-solving skills and use of logical processes as a college student. Terry and Betty Spurgin say their daughter’s development on campus has benefited her in all aspects of life.

“Her self-confidence has grown. Outside of home, she is much surer of herself. She’s gained some friendships during this time, and that has been very important,” Betty Spurgin observed.

Betty Spurgin also says the TCC team has been extremely supportive of her daughter. She calls Yolanda Hughes, coordinator of special projects for TCC Northeast Community and Industry Education Services, a “special blessing for Catherine.”

“She has truly made sure Catherine had a lot of opportunities to succeed, especially in the experiences she has had during her internships,” said Betty Spurgin.

TCC staff and instructors have no doubt Spurgin will excel in her career as an office professional.

“She is extremely diligent. Catherine wants to be sure she is doing what is needed and in the right way,” Thillen said. “She is positive and motivated, with an attitude of ‘I can do this.’”

Terry Spurgin describes his daughter’s perseverance as “almost superhuman stick-to-it-ivity.”

“Catherine has had many obstacles, physical and intellectual, to overcome, but she has pushed through and that, obviously, gives us a lot of pride,” he said.

In addition to Spurgin’s tenacity, her care for others stands out to those who know her.

“Catherine created her own saying that has become part of her persona,” shared Hernandez. “She says, ‘It’s all about relationships everywhere I go.’”

“Nothing in the world other than her relationship with God is more important than friends and family,” added Betty Spurgin. “She loves to help people and wants everyone to be successful.”

Her instructors believe success is attainable for others who follow Spurgin’s example.

“Never give up,” said Thillen of what students can learn from Spurgin. “People are willing to help. You may not know a concept yet, but with work and help, you can get there.”

This story is the latest in the “What’s stopping you?” series, celebrating members of the TCC community who don’t let challenges get in their way.