Katie Jansen, The Durham Herald-Sun
CHAPEL HILL - Like any college senior preparing to graduate, Katie Savage was feeling emotional Sunday, reminiscing on her time at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. But unlike other college seniors, Savage's journey on the campus began much earlier than the first day of her freshman year.
She drove down the road lined by UNC Hospitals, craning her neck to see Memorial Hospital, the building where she spent the majority of her time during her teenage years.
"I walked that skywalk," she said, gesturing to the skywalk that connects the hospitals to the parking deck across the street. "I came out in a wheelchair."
When Savage was 14, she went in to the hospital for heart surgery. But a blood clot forced doctors to remove her left leg.
Savage wore her Carolina blue gown Sunday morning, ready to graduate in mere hours.
"I'm a graduate of this university," she said. "It's pretty awesome. But I've been extremely broken on this campus, too."
Savage remembers driving with her parents from her former home in Durham to her doctor appointments and the physical therapy she took for three years.
But to her, the hospital wasn't just a place - it was centered in a place that left a deep impression on her.
"It wasn't just a place I was going for appointments," she said. "It was the atmosphere, that magic, that something I can't put into words. It was my first time seeing a thriving university community."
Because she wasn't in school while she was healing, Savage said she spent more time around UNC students and the rest of the community than she did with her peers.
On Sunday, she sat in her car in the parking lot behind Memorial Hospital. After learning to walk again with a prosthetic leg, she learned to ride a bike in the parking lot.
And when she was ready, she moved to Kenan Stadium to conquer the stairs.
The places on the university's campus were wrapped up in her journey to heal and her struggle to accept her new reality. And even though she admired the campus and felt drawn toward it, for a long time, she didn't dare to think that she could play a bigger role in the university's community.
Savage said that turning 18 was a painful time for her. She was of college age and many of her peers were heading off to school, but she didn't have the necessary prerequisites because she'd finished high school in a nontraditional setting as she was healing.
She said that not being able to go to school was upsetting for her.
"It hurt. I grieved daily," she said. "Honestly, I'd kind of given up. I didn't think that I'd - I wanted to go to school, but I didn't think I could do it. And I think it was because I was so emotionally broken. I think my fears and brokenness had just paralyzed me."
But eventually Savage enrolled at Central Carolina Community College, where she found the extra support and encouragement she needed.
She remembered her adviser, Amy Kennedy, asking her where she wanted to transfer.
"I didn't think it was even possible for me to transfer anywhere," Savage said.
But with encouragement from Kennedy and a professor, Holly Schofield, Savage began to believe that she had options.
But it wasn't until a phone call with Emma Robinson from the UNC Admissions Office that she had the courage to submit an application.
"I let her know, 'I want to be here, but I don't think I have a chance,'" Savage said. "And she said, 'Katie, what's the worst thing that can happen?'"
So Savage submitted applications to both UNC and North Carolina State University - and was accepted to both.
"She changed everything," Savage said of Robinson.
While at UNC, Savage flourished, declaring a major in political science and establishing an organization called Advocates for Carolina.
The group is for students with disabilities to meet, connect and list concerns which are then brought to Disability Services to help the students have a better experience during their time at school.
Savage also had the opportunity to meet other disabled students in her classes, such as a veteran who had lost both legs and an arm while serving in Iraq.
"Carolina has been such a healing experience for me because I've learned so much about myself," she said. "I can nurture any vision I have and execute it."
And her journey through the different places on campus has come full circle. When she took a class in Mitchell Hall, she parked on nearby Medical Drive, close to the place where she relearned how to walk and ride a bicycle.
"That was a pretty tearful moment," she said of the first time she pulled into the parking lot on Medical Drive.
Savage turned her tassel on Sunday amidst 549 other undergraduates who applied to graduate this December. She's applying to graduate school but isn't completely sure what she wants to study yet.
"I just know I want to help people," she said. "That's all I know. I'm keeping my options open."