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York College Student Overcomes Epilepsy to Earn Degree

Jessica Fitzharris in front of Kinsley

Jessica Fitzharris ’22 credits her professors for helping her succeed.

Jessica Fitzharris ‘22 swiped her card for the dining hall at York College of Pennsylvania and walked inside. That’s when her friend gave Fitzharris a confused look.

Her friend had swiped them both in for a meal, but in the moments that passed, Fitzharris blacked out and forgot.

It wasn’t the first time this had happened to her. Friends noticed she sometimes would stop talking mid-sentence, forgetting the conversation was even happening.

After the dining hall incident, she went to a neurologist to find answers. Fitzharris had been diagnosed with epilepsy as a child but hadn’t had any issues since age eight. But in 2019, her epilepsy had returned.

“I’ve always said that epilepsy is like a volcano,” Fitzharris says. “Sometimes, the volcano is dormant. Other times, it’s erupting with active seizures.”

Fitzharris wasn’t scared, but she was worried about her internship at Harley Davidson and a full schedule of classes.

“The medication I was on had me sleeping for about 20 hours per day,” Fitzharris says. “I needed to figure out how I was going to finish the semester if I couldn’t work, drive, or do the things I needed to do." 

“Ask for help”

On May 14, 2022, Fitzharris crossed the graduation stage and received her bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering. While her epilepsy brought challenges, giving up and dropping out of college was never an option.

“I’m way too stubborn for that,” Fitzharris says with a laugh. After the latest epilepsy diagnosis, she began reaching out to her York College professors. Time for classes and homework were limited by the medicine-fueled pattern of excessive sleep.

Her professors were understanding of the situation. Fitzharris dropped two classes and for the remaining courses, the professors went out of their way to help.

“Dr. Ashley Earle and Dr. Stephen Kuchnicki were incredibly understanding,” Fitzharris says of the Engineering professors. “I could go to their offices and vent about what I was feeling or ask for help.”

Fitzharris pushed through the Fall 2019 Semester. Professors gave her flexible deadlines. After six months of adjusting to the medication, better health returned. She urges others to learn from her example and never be afraid to ask for help.

“Asking for help is what got me through it,” Fitzharris says. “There are professors I had that are very by-the-book and extremely fair. Those are the professors who helped me when I needed it.” 

‘Keep pushing through’

Engineering was always in Fitzharris’s persona. In 10th grade, she worked on a biology project. She needed to collect DNA from a strawberry but didn’t extract enough of the material.

Instead of admitting her mistake to the teacher, Fitzharris put tape on a probe and wiped the test tube she had used, gathering whatever remaining DNA she could. She later learned it was the most DNA anyone in the class had collected.

“Engineering always felt right,” Fitzharris says. “Whenever I encountered a problem, I always looked for my own way to solve it.”

Fitzharris enrolled at York College after touring the Kinsley Engineering Center on campus. She fell in love with the machinery and remembers feeling the camaraderie between students and faculty.

In subsequent years, she spent hours doing homework with her classmates in those same spaces. She remembers the long nights in the Center fondly.

“Everyone there is in the same boat, working on homework, and we made it fun,” Fitzharris says. “Whether we were pushing each other in chairs down the hallway or having a pool noodle sword fight, we found ways to break up the work. Taking a few minutes to recharge made us work even harder.” 

With her degree in hand, Fitzharris began working as a design engineer for Greydon Inc., a printing equipment maker in York. She hopes to pursue an MBA at York College this fall.

Her advice to students revolves around putting their needs first, especially those that involve health. Most importantly, she says, never give up on your dreams.

“Even if you fail a class and have to retake it, you’re in a better spot having learned some of the information,” she says. “Keep pushing through it and you’ll get to the other side.”