Russell Cobb '14 graduates to standing ovation

July 9, 2014

For Russell Cobb '14, crossing the graduation stage at Maryville College in May was the culmination of an experience that he says gave him a sense of direction in life.

When Cobb, who lives with spinal muscular atrophy, crossed the stage with his service dog, Deuce, his fellow classmates gave him a standing ovation.

"I really liked the freedom aspect of college," said Cobb, a psychology major who has used a wheelchair since the age of two. "You're entering adult life and learning to take on personal responsibilities and taking charge of your own education."

Cobb, a 2009 graduate of William Blount High School and the son of Terry and Mendy Cobb of Maryville, has by all accounts been an excellent student. But he encountered a serious medical problem during his last month of college.

In early April a case of the flu turned into severe pneumonia and breathing problems, resulting in a month-long hospital stay. He was anesthetized in the emergency room, had a tracheotomy done and spent more than a week on a ventilator.

"With me being out that long, it would have been difficult to catch up," he said. "I was very worried about not being able to graduate as planned, but I was able to get incomplete statuses in all my classes."

Lori Hunter, director of learning services at the College, said that wasn't the first time Cobb had been hospitalized during his time at Maryville College. He will finish his incomplete assignments this summer.

"Both times that he was in the hospital the illness came on quickly and strongly," she said. "Russ showed perseverance and determination to not let those illnesses and time away from the College keep him from finishing his semesters, which he finished quite strong, academically."

Cobb demonstrated "great strength, determination and patience" throughout his time at the College, she added.

Successful student

Cobb's advisor during his time at Maryville College was Associate Professor of Psychology Dr. Ariane Schratter.

"He seemed to eagerly accept new experiences, regardless of the extra time and effort they may require of him," she said. "So, I suspect that this willingness to take on new experiences, including those likely outside of his comfort zone, are a big part of his success."

Schratter pointed out that she plans to have a "frank and open discussion" with Cobb about what the College can do to further "improve experiences for future students."

"While I will always remember Russ as a highly successful student who handled his academic work with grace and good humor, I think an important part of Russ’s legacy will be the ways we commit to change and grow as a result of his life at Maryville College," she said.

Friends reflect

According to fellow psychology graduate Christi Montgomery '14, Cobb's consistently positive attitude "put things in perspective for a lot of us who went to school with him."

"I just really enjoyed going to school with him," she said. "Russ has always been an inspiration to me because of the adversity he's overcome. He's always been so consistent in being optimistic about things."

Another friend of Cobb's, Kelsey O'Dell '17, says she was impressed that Cobb completed his senior thesis despite being hospitalized.

"I think it’s so awesome that he has overcome so many challenges," she said. "It’s definitely been really rewarding for him to be able to complete this big project."

Accessibility a priority

Hunter said that her office helped in relocating some of Cobb's classes so that he would have elevator access at all times. During his time at the College, automatic doors were added to Fayerweather Hall, Thaw Hall and Sutton Science Center.

"That was definitely a really helpful change. I know they are renovating Anderson Hall now, and I’ve been told they plan to put an elevator in," Cobb said.

According to Maryville College President Dr. Tom Bogart, the elevator being installed during the Anderson Hall renovation reflects the College's values and priorities.

"We’ve explicitly from very early times focused on the College being accessible to all who can benefit from it," Bogart said. "If we’re going to be accessible, we should be physically accessible as well as theoretically accessible."

Future plans

Cobb, who plans to attend graduate school, said that at the graduation ceremony he was "really excited to be able to get back and see some people who [he] had missed for over a month," and it was a "really good feeling to be able to finish up."

The genetic illness from which he suffers is only present in its less severe form and therefore allows for a life well into adulthood and old age.

Since attending the College, Cobb has gained "a better sense of direction," he said. "I know what my capabilities are. I've learned more about myself, which is probably the most meaningful thing that has taken place for me since enrolling."

He plans to go into psychological counseling and will likely attend graduate school at the University of Tennessee. If not that, then he would like to continue studying psychology or become a social worker.

When asked if he had expected to graduate from college, Cobb displayed some of the determined character that members of the College community have come to expect from him.

"I kind of take the mindset into everything that as long as I know what I’m doing and how to go about it, then I can probably accomplish it," he said.

By Gerhard Schneibel, News and New Media Writer


Maryville College is ideally situated in Maryville, Tenn., between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Knoxville, the state's third largest city. Founded in 1819, it is the 12th oldest institution of higher learning in the South and maintains an affiliation with the Presbyterian Church (USA). Known for offering its students a rigorous and highly personal experience that includes an undergraduate research requirement, Maryville College is a nationally ranked institution of higher learning that successfully joins the liberal arts and professional preparation. Total enrollment for the fall 2014 semester is 1,213.