"Studying is the only thing I have left"

The perseverance of Maissae, who is in a wheelchair and has done the university entrance exam at home, opens the doors into university

5 min
Maissae is wheelchair bound due to a degenerative disease and has made the PAZ home.

L'Hospitalet de LlobregatMaissae has gotten an 8 in the selectivity, but the merit is not so much the result as the enormous effort and the great determination that she has shown to get into university. She has been living in a wheelchair for a long time, affected by a degenerative disease that only allows her to move one hand. She has been able to wear masks to class even though she was choking and has taken the university entrance exams at her own home. A story of self-improvement that she wants to serve as an example and inspiration for students with disabilities: "We can do it all. Although she is aware that there are not many cases like hers and that she is an exceptional witness, Maissae faces the interview with modesty and shyness. She smiles with some embarrassment when she says the marks she has achieved out loud in the university entrance exam or when she admits that her teachers have told her that they are very proud of her."

And rightly so. Maissae, now 19, has been studying since she arrived from Tetuan at the Pedraforca Institute, a highly complex centre in the Florida neighbourhood, the densest in Europe and where half the population is of immigrant origin. "At first I thought: "How am I going to do it?", but then I did well because I made an effort to learn and my classmates were very nice". Knowing neither Catalan nor Spanish, the girl communicated as best she could in English with friends and teachers. And while she was adapting to her new life in Catalonia, her body was succumbing to the illness she had been diagnosed with when she was 11 years old. "I have a disease that people get when they are 40 or 60 years old. They told me it was the first case they had seen that had started at 5 years old". In Morocco they told her it was myopathy, and in Catalonia that it was a neuropathy. She sums it up like this: "the doctors are not sure if the problem is with the muscles or with the neurons". What is clear to her is that her muscles have lost a lot of strength and very quickly: at five years old she "whined and lost her balance" and now, at 19, she can only move her left hand, which she uses to control her chair. She clings to every little opportunity: "When there is a change in my life, I have to accept it and I have to adapt myself. Now I have to make the most of the fact that I still have mobility in one hand".

Studying mathematics by dictating

The disability has obviously affected her studies, although she tries to make the most of it. "It does cost me a little more than the others" she says. As it is very difficult for her to write, she doesn't take notes in class. "I just listen, and that's why I have to be very concentrated". She took her exams at school either orally or by dictating to her teacher, Montse. "I've known her since the first day I started high school, when I was fourteen. She is like my mother and I will miss her a lot", says Maissae. At home, she studied by reading textbooks or reviewing the notes given to her by her classmates. The hardest part was studying maths, because she had to practise exercises by dictating - usually to her father - all the calculations that had to be done. But despite the obvious difficulties, Maissae was clear that she wanted to study in high school "for two reasons". "The first is that I wanted to learn more Catalan and Spanish, because two years of high school wasn't enough, and the second is because I want to go to university", she explains. And, with absolute determination, she adds: "I want to continue studying. I can't do anything else, me, just study. It's the only thing I have left given my physical conditions".

Maissae is 19 years old and has done the university entrance exam at home

So she chose the scientific baccalaureate, a level that is "a little more difficult" than the previous courses, but not as difficult as she had imagined: "I knew it would be hard, but I wanted to try. Until, in the middle of the first year, "the pandemic changed everything". "I knew it would be hard, but I wanted to try", she recalls, although she is grateful for the school's efforts to provide her with a laptop and connectivity at home and for the time she was able to spend with her family. Maissae lives with her parents and two 4-year-old twin brothers, and has three more living in Morocco. In the second year, with the resumption of face-to-face classes, she suffered even more: "With the mask I suffocate a lot and I had to leave the class, and when I left, I had an even harder time because I was thinking of all the time I was missing".

The pride of her teachers

She has passed the baccalaureate with remarkable success and, what is perhaps more important, with the admiration of her classmates and teachers. "She is a humble person, very receptive and grateful", explains Bernat Juan, the director of Pedraforca. "Having a student like Maissae forces you to adapt, but you do it with pleasure, because she always does her best", he says. And he describes his student's stubbornness: "She had limited hours and had to leave class, but you could always see her turning her neck, because she wanted to stay and not miss anything. She is always eager to know more". It is a source of pride for the faculty that Maissae has reached the PAU, despite the fact that, even in this case, life had prepared another obstacle for her: "I wanted to dedicate the last week to studying, but I caught bronchitis and I spent every day in bed, focused on doing pulmonary rehabilitation to get to the exam well".

In exceptional cases, students take the exams a week later, and only on rare occasions does the Generalitat allow students to take the exam at home. "An examiner will come to the house for three days. At first I was a bit embarrassed, but deep down I thought it was better than not going to the university to take the exam and wasting a lot of time going back and forth every day", she says. Maissae took the same exams as the rest of the students in the specific part (the three languages, maths and history), but with more time and dictating every answer to the teacher, including the Catalan, Spanish and English essays and all the maths procedures, an exam in which she didn't make a single mistake. When she saw her average of eight in the PAU, she burst into tears of joy and emotion: "University is a different world and I'm really looking forward to this experience".

She then had to make one last decision: "I didn't know what to study. When I was little I thought about becoming a pharmacist, then a doctor, even though I know I wouldn't be able to practice. She never gave up: "I searched the internet to see what options I had to do something in the laboratory or research, and I found biomedicine and I really liked it". Now she hopes to enter the campus of the University of Barcelona in Bellvitge, also thanks to the places reserved for students with disabilities. But if she finally can't get in and has to study a second or third option -she has chosen biotechnology or biology-, she knows that the world won't stop: "There are always ways to get where we want to go".