Nyla Smith was just a normal girl going through all the things a girl goes through in high school, but that all changed 6 years ago, In 2010, Nyla was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease , also known as irritable bowel syndrome, when your immune system attacks the gastrointestinal tract and cannot tell the bad bacteria from the good.
Being just a sophomore in high school, life completely changed for Nyla's as she knew it on an everyday basis. Her illness changed her entire life, and made it very difficult to be a student and maintain her nonprofit - the Hustle Hard Campaign. At one, point she was told to consider being home-schooled because her condition was so severe. In addition to her physical illness, Nyla found herself battling anxiety and depression as a teenager, and even making big changes to her diet. Despite all she’s been through Nyla continued to push through the pain and became the strong, resilient woman she is today.
“Its really amazing and remarkable that this experience has been able to open me to meet people who [see themselves in my story], not everyone has had Crohn’s and not everyone has been through chemotherapy but a lot of people have struggled with feeling different,” says Nyla.
So you are the youngest person in St. John University’s history to receive a bachelor's of science degree. Tell me about how that happened and how your college experience was effected
I went through an early college program, and I started that at 16. So after two years of high I tested into a collegiate high school and was set to graduate with my associates in science. So I did that and transferred into St. John’s and did my last two years there and that’s where I got my bachelors. I struggled with normal stuff like my class and there was also my illnesses. I had to be creative in combating those issues, like going to tutoring three times each week at least and study for usually 6 hours a day. I also had to make sure that I got a lot of sleep, with the illness and taking over 20 credit hours each semester. I also try to eat healthy and stay away from junk food because it makes you nostalgic and I didn’t need any more excuses to be tired. I had to be creative and find different ways to not run myself in the ground but pay special attention to my eating habits and study habits.
What challenges do student with disabilities face in the school system?
I would say some challenges we face are feeling really isolated because we go through many different types of treatment that causes us to be excused from classes frequently, and students who don’t really know what we go through tend to see it as us bending the rules. I’ve been told by students that it seemed like the teacher was more relaxed on me and that would cause friction between me and my classmates. In classes, especially public schools, we’re labeled as special ed students and that’s a term I feel like people respond to negatively and not having outwardly visible symptoms then you aren’t truly disabled and that caused a barrier for them to understand why we need the accommodations and what’s truly going on.
How do you think accessibility initiatives and disability accommodations in the system today are doing? What could they do better?
Honestly, they suck. I personally am an advocate for an increase in resources for disability students and have been working on making hustle hard support groups on college campuses and high schools to give students a place to build bonds and leadership skills just because I feel like there’s nothing else out there for us to do so. I think schools can do a much better job at making students feel heard, feelings accounted for. I think students end up having problems with other students because teachers and administrators treat us like second class students and that cosigns the way they treat us. I’ve had bad experiences with my accommodations and then I moved on to St. John’s which had much better accommodations and were more secretive about my disabilities. I’m not sure if that’s just my school or when you move on to higher education that’s how they treat you, but I do think in high school they could do better.
When did you know you needed to start a campaign to help others who can relate to your story?
When I graduated, a meme of me went viral. There was almost 1 million shares of the meme, and a lot student contacted me because my story really resonated with them and they wanted to join my efforts to make that change in the schools. I had been speaking throughout the year, starting in November 2015 but the idea for the non-profit and then go on to create resources for the students, happened more towards May 2016. Seeing the response to the meme and meeting other students who were so similar to me it motivated me to [give a voice] to people who often don’t have anybody to champion for us.
What are your goals for the Hustle Hard Campaign?
I’ve talked about the hustle hard support group – that’s a major goal I’m working on currently. I also want to give a scholarship to at least two students - and my major goals is to be able to cover meal expenses and treatment costs for the year. All of the money I get from speaking goes into the scholarships and I’m partnering with my sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. to plan a fundraiser to be able to raise the funds.
How has sharing your story and launching the platform changed your outlook on life?
I would say that it’s really made me look outside of myself. I’m a very spiritual person and I believe that God put this on my heart to do. I’ve been contacted by people who said they were bullied to the point where they wanted to commit suicide and have gone through self harming – and even I would cut myself and this went on for six months. The Hustle Hard campaign has shown me that everyone goes through their challenges for a reason, and that there are people who need to hear the message that you can get past whatever it is that you’re going through. At the time when I was diagnosed there weren’t really a lot of people talking about Crohn's disease. I remember being so desperate to find someone who looked like me and had the same set of problems as me and see them excel and be great in spite of.
There many components to HHC, how do they all tie together?
There are a lot of moving pieces in all of this. I try to make my message relatable and diverse, because not everyone is sick and I try to include things that people coming from a different set of circumstances may be attracted to. I make these posts and videos to share my experience in a [well rounded] way because I’m not just sick, and what I’m offering is not just comforting and warm and fuzzy words for those who have illness.
What is the one thing you need everyone who hears your story to take away from it?
You can’t control anything that happens to you – good, bad, indifferent, but you can control how you respond to it. You can control your attitude and your outlook on the situation, I feel that unfair things happen, but what matters and what sticks is what you chose to do in spite of your problems.